“Perfume Is Higher Than Art” ?

This is the name of a new post over at frompyrgos.blogspot.com (I added the question mark). I find no “fault” with this post, in terms of the blogger relaying his opinion in a reasonable way. Instead, I’d like to focus on a more general way of viewing things, one that has become more compelling to me recently (though not necessarily anything “new”), along with some other insights. The “short version:” I no longer have much interest in abstract concepts and I have found that my understanding of both “fine art” and scents meant to be “worn” on a person’s skin has changed, over and over again. I no longer have interest in any kind of definitive view but rather embrace ambivalence.

Being someone who studied fine art back in the early to mid 1990s and then went on to develop my own painting style and raison d’etre for doing so, as well as having personal interactions with some of the “main players” (such as gallery owners), I certainly saw similarities with “perfumery” became an interest of mind (beginning in late 2007). If we start with the Italian Renaissance and “modern perfumery” (late 1800s to the present), one this is clear; in both cases there was an attempt to imitate “reality” without trying to replicate it exactly. Artist David Hockney wrote a book entitled “Secret Knowledge” (2006) in which he argued that much of what have viewed as great works of art were more like great works of copying (at least that is what I would argue in light of what he wrote in that book). You can read about it at amazon.com but my point is that it’s difficult to get a handle on the simple question, “what is art?’

As I said, to me, these days, it’s just yet another abstract concept that people use to make life difficult for themselves, so let me tell you my history of art from the Italian Renaissance forward, one that uses no abstract concepts. It begins with attempts to create more realistic representation. Some artists were good at painting fairly realistic faces, others at landscapes, etc. However, eventually a kind of crossroads was reached, most likely due to technical developments in optics (see Hockney’s book for all the details), and an artist had to choose between being a copier and being more creative. Rembrandt (and Rubens) took one road while Caravaggio took the other. Today, however, most people just think of them as great “Old Masters,” and don’t realize that towards the end of Rembrandt’s life, his style was totally out of fashion!

I mention Rembrandt in particular because after him another crossroads was reached (Academy painters, who followed in the Caravaggio style, versus those who emphasized one aspect of visual representation at the expense of some sort of abstract notion of what a realistic painting should look like; from there develops Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, etc.). JMW Turner is an obvious example of the latter kind of painter. In any case, I view Rembrandt as the greatest naturalistic oil painter because he was able to make people see a “cartoon” as a unique and exciting view of “reality,” so to speak. These works did not look sort of like photographs, the way Caravaggio’s did (to later generations who lived in the age of photography, obviously). I use the word cartoon because these paintings have sharp areas and smoothed or dull areas, so that if you look at them “objectively” they have a bit of an amateurish quality. Rembrandt, however, seems to have discovered some key things about human visual perception that led him to paint this way, for example:

“‘When viewing the Rembrandt-like portraits, viewers fixated on the detailed eye faster and stayed there for longer periods of time, resulting in calmer eye movements,’ says DiPaola, who is also an associate professor at Simon Fraser University and adjunct faculty at UBC’s Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre. ”The transition from sharp to blurry edges, known as ‘lost and found edges,’ also directed the viewers eyes around the portrait in a sort of narrative.'”

Taken from: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100528092019.htm

So, to me the major accomplishment here, most likely arrived at by doing an awful lot of staring at people and/or portraits, involves making the objectively unrealistic look real due to the way we generally look at objects in particular contexts. And this is where “fine art” intersects, one might say, with perfumery. Modern perfumery requires the same kind of “narrative,” in that we try to “read” the scent in a way that makes sense to us. The major difference is that there is no one general way of perceiving scent, or perhaps more precisely, there are several different ways of perceiving scents. On Monday I might be able to read a scent and enjoy it, while later in the week I might find it too dense and unpleasant. On Monday I might find that one note is very weak whereas on Friday it comes across as overpowering.

Of course one might always come across a child in a museum who walks up to a Rembrandt portrait and asks his parents why it seems fuzzy and cartoon-like. However, in general people seem to have a more precise sense of vision, if that’s the best way to phrase it, and I’m sure most who agree with this will begin to think about how evolution is responsible. For the most part, today the idea that a professional perfume must go beyond reality (“nature”) is generally accepted (and of course began with the imaginary “fern” accord back in 1882), and to me this is in accord with Rembrandt’s painterly innovations. Beyond that, what else is there to say? Do we really want to argue about things like whether “art” must be “artificial” or not?

I shall leave that sort of thing to those who have plenty of time (and the inclination) to devote to such pursuits. Instead, I’d like research money to be spent on figuring out exactly what is occurring when one feels that a scent is too “heavy” for hot weather, for example. In the meantime, I prefer to be more of a hedonist with scents, though not a thoughtless one. I find myself constantly thinking about why I like or dislike a scent, or at least a particular wearing of it. As a newbie, I remember thinking that once I “learned” a note, it would be seem like many scents contained too much of it. Then I’d learn another note and the previous note I learned would no longer seem too strong. To some degree I’m still doing this today, and I have no idea where this “journey” might “end.” There are so many notes, accords, and combinations. I’ve noticed that sometimes when I become familiar with one, I seem to lose at least some familiarity with one or more than I thought I already learned.

Will I ever develop a sense of smell that is as precise as our visual sense? As long as I continue to enjoy using scents, these kinds of questions are a secondary priority, and what I’ve found is that the “answers” just come to me, it seems, without overheating my brain about such matters! By contrast, if I want to paint a Rembrandt-like portrait (I have my own technique for doing that, and I haven’t tried to paint the same way he did, though the result is quite similar in some ways), I have a very clear sense about how to do it. I’m not going to wake up one day and decide to use burnt sienna where I always used burnt umber in the past. I know the “rules,” wheres a perfumer knows that there will likely be quite a few people who do not care for his or her scent, and can only hope to appeal to the “masses,” assuming that is the goal. Today, “fine art” seems to be mostly about stimulating the mind (in terms of abstract concepts the viewer already knows) rather than the sense of vision, whereas perfumery is still largely about what the masses find pleasant. In short, things may become very clear if we “reverse” the present situation; if we did, Secretions Magnifique would be the top selling scent whereas pleasant landscape paintings one can buy for less than $20 now just about anywhere would exhibited in the major art museums.

One last “practical” note: I can’t speak to most people about scents the way I can speak about Rembrandt paintings because they do not have the “wiring” in their minds/brains that I do. By contrast, I can point to things in a painting and explain what the artist did. If a painting were to be viewed behind a mostly opaque screen of some kind, that might be a rough approximation of the difficulties a “trained nose” has in explaining scents to a person who has not studied them. However, the bigger “problem” is that even a trained nose doesn’t necessarily experience a scent the same way from one wearing to another. Recently, I was watching a TV (unfortunately I can’t remember which one) which mentioned that someone who had become a wine aficionado, and he said that he really enjoyed his wines because he found his tastes constantly changing. Perhaps scents are best thought of as a variation on Hemingway’s notion of a “movable feast,” though in this case your mind moves away, so to speak, rather than the fragrant liquid. No matter, I shall try to avoid becoming too concerned with any abstract concepts and just enjoy what they have to offer directly.

UPDATE: The author of the “Perfume Is Higher Than Art” post wrote up a new one entitled, “Scent Perception Is Largely Stationary, Predictable, And No ‘Moveable Feast.'” First of all, scents that I discuss on this blog are meant to be more than “mere smells,” as others have pointed out long before I became interested in this “hobby.” An obvious example is the original fougere, meant to evoke a smell that people might imagine but does not really exist (fern). However, I am not arguing against one point made by this blogger in his new post (people living near farms becoming accustomed to malodorous animal waste), and (consistent with this point) have found that I need to wear a different scent each day, one distinctly different from anything I’ve worn over the previous few days. My “rotation” probably is at least 200 scents at this point. Thus, I don’t’ necessarily disagree with the research he presents but rather with the interpretation in this context, in terms of the scent aficionado who has hundreds of bottles lining his shelves and patiently waiting their turn to be worn (usually no more than a few times a year, at most). It seems to me that he is now suggesting, without realizing it, that “perfumery” is clearly “lower” than “fine art!”

Secondly, I’ve found that the better I become at detecting notes the more, not less variation there is in the actual experience of wearing the scent for several hours. Just yesterday, in fact, I was surprised at how unpleasant I found Zegna Forte whereas in the past couple of wearings I enjoyed it (and the weather was “right” for that kind of scent!). Moreover, it seems to me to be highly likely that the faults this blogger has found with some of Luca Turin’s or Tania Sanchez’ reviews in their “Guide”‘ book were due to this issue! Lastly, the older I get I the more I find myself interested in direct observation (or direct experimentation, as opposed to statistical correlations studies, for example), in proper context, and the more bored I become by those talking abstractly (usually never defining the imprecise terms and phrases they use). However, if I were to think in abstract terms in this context I might just argue that “perfume” is “higher” than “fine art” precisely because it possesses this kind of modified version of a movable feast !

UPDATE #2; Several hours ago, I wrote a post for a thread about Everlast Original 1910 on Basenotes.net, and I realized that this scent is a great example of the “moveable feast” aspect of so many scents. Here it is:

This is quite a dynamic scent and indeed I’m not surprised with the different perceptions. It’s like several distinct scents are trapped in that bottle. Sometimes I get a lot of the leather while at other times the fougere is most obvious; still other times the oriental-ish base predominates. In the opening, sometimes the grapefruit is very strong and other times it’s acceptable and I get clear mint. I suggest trying it several times under different conditions (especially weather and how you apply it), because this truly a “moveable feast” of a scent !


1 Comment

Filed under Criticizing the critics.

One response to ““Perfume Is Higher Than Art” ?

  1. Guest

    I agree itshould notbe thought of to much.the true intention of the perfumer is could be something plesant or unplesant so let’s just enjoy and see if we can meet theartist hallf way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s