Perfume and the Interminable

To be as intrinsically valuable as art is, perfume must
exploit every known variable of time and space.

Perfume is more than a manufactured olfactory experience. Like the Modernist movement before it, postmodern perfumery is an intellectual and sensory exploration of human culture. We understand the social norms of wearing perfume within the various cultural contexts of our lives, yet contemporary perfumery employs methods of self-critical discipline aligned more closely with De Stijl than style.

The relatively recent rise of niche products has given us alternatives to the mainstream, creating rifts in ideology for perfumers, and in taste among buyers. As counterparts, these two commercial bodies are ecliptic, with financial gain the sole center of gravity. Yet the products themselves are dialogues in an internalized language of self-subordination, designed to place the medium more securely in its area of competence.

Paul Parquet and Francois Coty soldered their demarcations between the masculine and the feminine into our consciousness, elevating natural essences via synthetics. Nearly a century later, Ramon Monegal meditates on a contemporary rendition of oud, while Andy Tauer contemplates neroli, and Frank Voelkl explores iris. The language evolved from a series of broad, objective statements with spare accords into an expository, inescapably referential ponderance of subjective specifics, right down to the last note.

One fundamental difference between perfume and art is found at the mutual vanishing point of the two: the utilization of space. In pictorial art, particularly in Modernist painting, flatness is emphasized first; viewers are to consider the physical limitations of a canvas before absorbing what is represented within them. Perfume suffers no such constraint. It exists as an extension of one's presence, and as an extension of self perception. The former condition relies on space to convey itself to others; the latter favors the immediacy of self awareness, needing only the space occupied by one's self to be enjoyed.

Perfume is irreproducible, another trait which separates it from art. Therefore it can not experientially transcend the present, and chances of generational appreciation are virtually nonexistent. If the Mona Lisa burned tomorrow, my children could enjoy accurate reproductions of the image thirty years from now. Once my bottle of Furyo is empty, no one will ever know what it smelled like, unless they're lucky enough to encounter their own perfectly preserved bottle of the original formula. Perfume exists in the present, with no promise for the future.

Art endures. Art is shark-like, continually moving along the currents of time, thrashing through time in bursts of tangible and material expressions. It is a celebration of confusion. The twenty-first century has advanced this state of confusion more efficiently than anything else, sending barriers between fine art and popular culture crashing to the ground. But as Clement Greenberg pointed out in his essay, Avant Garde Attitudes, "Artistic value is one, not many."

There are varying degrees of quality in art, which Greenberg calls "goodness," but we measure one singular value: the "goodness" of good art. Lesser examples elicit commensurate levels of appreciation, but only from those savvy enough to recognize the difference between good and bad art. To someone who is ignorant of what constitutes good art, the pictures in a comic book are the world. The same metric can not be applied to perfumery, because there is no qualitative standard. There is only the perceptual standard, or the ability to perceive perfume, and therein lies the rub. If we are to consider perfume valuable, it must offer an ineluctable condition of its own value.

Such a condition can only be recognized if perfume is allowed to exploit the variables of time and space in the same manner as art. If an art object is thousands of miles away, it can still be experienced in a photograph; if a perfume is a thousand miles away, it can not be experienced at all. Perfume in space is finite.

If one wishes to enjoy an art object five years from now, the preservation of the object is of secondary importance, as long as its existence was effectively documented via reproduction. If one seeks to enjoy a perfume five years after it is sprayed, it is best to use the entire bottle, and never shower. Perfume, given only a short time, is finite.

So far the only emphasis in the search for empirical value in perfume resides with how it exploits space. Here it holds an advantage over art, even sculptural art, because its interaction with space is dynamic and indefinite. One spray may yield a favorable result at four feet, or ten. Two may make an impact at fifteen feet. The drawbacks become evident when we try to determine the relationship between space, perfume, and time. Indeed, perfume may be beautiful at any number of feet from the source, but for how long? By the seventh or eighth hour, whatever molecular activity remains is fractional, with the experience proportionate to quantity and proximity. You may need to be smelling more sprays from mere inches away.

But even so, the wearer subverts these conditions by simply existing with the perfume. This is markedly different from being in the same room as perfume. Wearing perfume collapses the time/space continuum in on itself, at least temporarily. The wearer flaunts the immediacy of being with the perfume, enjoys the sensory experience without needing to be downwind, and never requires any relative experience to appreciate it. The light may need to be right for art to be enjoyed, but not so with perfume.

With so many divergences from art, it is a wonder these questions persist with perfume. Perhaps there is a reason for them, one which resides in our broad recognition of how we value perfume. Perfume is to be smelled. We can only bring its smell along with us throughout our day, but somehow its bottle, the color of its fluid, its box design, and even its name embellish our focus on the smell. Perfume manufacturers commission these ancillary design details to profit in a competitive market, but our embrace of them exposes how collectively fallow our intellectual probity is in appreciating the true product.

Just as art styles deteriorate with time, the perception of a perfume deteriorates with subsequent bottles, usually due to reformulation. Inversely, our opinion of the first bottle usually improves with time and memory, despite our perception of the fragrance remaining the same. Our noses do not smell the aroma chemicals differently; our emotional connections to these smells recontextualize and reconfigure around subsequent experiences, essentially assuming different forms.

This can be likened to the idea of feeling less satisfied by an art reproduction than by the original piece, except that people do not honestly have this reaction to quality reproductions of artworks. My friend owns an original print of a piece by Joan Miró, and is very proud to have it on his wall. In thirty-four years, I have not known him to lament the absence of the original piece. A good, frameable reproduction is usually considered worthy of constant appreciation. A reproduction of scent by reformulation (or "cloning") is a different story.

My explanation for this is directly applied to labeling, and our postmodernist acculturation toward labels; perfume labeled "Art" is difficult to penetrate, while perfume labeled "Design" makes sense. Design is disposable; art is, for better or worse, indispensable. If we call perfume "Art," we are claiming it is indispensable, but when does the actual art experience begin? Is it "Art" in the bottle, or only after it has been sprayed? If we call it "Design," the question answers itself: the experience begins when perfume is used.

I mention this because a perfume's use is its termination point. However, as with all designed objects, the desire to use, and the need to use, plods on interminably. We used forks five hundred years ago, and will continue using modified iterations of the fork five hundred years from now. The fork itself will likely cycle through at least a dozen modifications, with specific forks seeing only several years of use, mere incremental fragments of its time. Perfume will endure in similar fashion, unless our sense of smell devolves as a result of an unfortunate biological twist of fate.

Five years ago, Juliette Has A Gun released a perfume named "Not A Perfume." Ironically, they were correct; until the first customer bought and used it, the product was merely liquid in a bottle.