The fine art of a sublime flaw ?

Chandler Burr recently was interviewed by Miguel Matos, and you can read the exchange at:

In this interview, Burr admitted to knowing next to nothing about scents before meeting Luca Turin on a train, which he discusses in “The Emperor of Scent” book (2003). I was similarly “blissfully ignorant” in 2007, so I’m certainly not suggesting one needs to devote one’s life to it, and in fact those who are exposed to “fine fragrance”/perfumery at a young age might mean that inaccurate perceptions are difficult to abandon. In any case, during this interview, Burr agreed that scent could be compared to “performance art.” In the commentary section at the page on Fragrantica cited above, I posted the following comment:

I like the idea of comparing these olfactory concoctions to performance art, though of course some of us don’t accept that performance art is “fine art.” In any case, assuming we accept this comparison, the problem for people like Burr or Turin then becomes that they seem to focus on top notes. I think Turin has admitted to not doing more than smelling the top notes to some negative reviews he’s written, for example. That would be like seeing only the first few minutes of a performance art “piece” that lasted for an hour !

Now to be fair, we know from psychology that one cannot keep one’s attention on a particular event for an hour without quite a few lapses. However, in the case of some of the “experts” in this field (few if any of whom have graduated from a perfumery school, besides the perfumers, obviously) don’t seem to pay much attention to a scent’s development over time, even though none are questioning how much many scents do change over time! Isn’t that an obvious flaw in Burr’s claim about these olfactory concoctions being “fine art?” Here is perhaps his most explicit statement in this context:

“The fundamental goal of the department,” Mr. Burr said during a recent interview at his office, “is placing scent as an artistic medium alongside painting, sculpture and music.”

It seems to me that there is a kind of unspoken notion (with at least Burr and Turin) that the top notes of a scent represent the major “artistic” element of it, and if so, I wish people like these state this explicitly (if that is there position, of course). Otherwise, what is the position of those who compare these concoctions to fine art? After all, just about every scent available now eventually develops into something similar if not nearly identical to something those of us who have sampled hundreds of scents have smelled at some point! If this is true, then at the very least a distinction should be made between what we might call “artistic/top notes” people and “base notes/olfactory pleasure seekers,” or something along those lines. If not, as apparently was the case (judging from reviews and posts on the major scent sites), books like “Perfumes: The Guide” will continue to confuse or irritate many people.

I’m all for someone claiming that scents (or at least some them) are on the same level as “fine art,” so long as that person is willing to take some time and explain his or her position to us. If I decide that I don’t agree, that’s fine, because at least it gave me something to think about in the context of something I enjoy. However, if you don’t explain your position in detail, it can come across as someone straining to make others think that something the person likes is “art” (or something else generally considered laudable). Leaving possible conflicts of interest aside here, the person may be doing more harm than good. The “fragrance industry” will do just fine, after all, whether or not the Museum of Arts and Desig has a department of olfactory art or not, for example. And “niche” is here to stay, even if the idea that scents should be viewed as “fine art” is rejected by everyone in the world other than Mr. Burr.

On argument I haven’t heard about yet is that scent is “art” because it presents us with the “sublime.” This philosophical concept does not have one definition, but there is a general idea of something awe-inspiring that is consistent with many if not most definitions posited over the centuries. In some ways, scents can be viewed as the opposite of “fine art,” because they do not have to refer to artistic traditions, and in fact they can be said to be free of social constraints. Now it may be that you can’t smell Emeraude without thinking of your wonderful great aunt, but what I have found is that after time scents became totally disconnected from everything else. I can’t say this will happen to you as well, but for me this is exactly what I think of as “sublime” (if I like the scent, obviously). The experience is unique and beyond words (for instance, I generally find food-like scents unpleasant, so there is no connection to “reality” there); perhaps the best one can do is to compare one scent to another in terms of criteria that seem useful (such as depth, complexity, richness, dynamism, etc.). However, let us not forget this feeling may mostly be due to the sense of smell being directly connected to the brain, meaning that cultural/social are easier to “lose” if you wear many different scents and spend enough time studying them, as I do.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who claim that financial success is the major criteria, apparently because that means the scent “must be good.” Here is a recent review of Bleu de Chanel, for example (on; note that I corrected a few obvious spelling mistakes:

Just want to tell that if it is a “mass fragrance”, that doesn’t mean that every one who love it are idiot, that mean that the designer made a great fragrance, that its product is liked by many, so he/she made a success! I don’t know a company that doesn’t want success in what they doing…

My main argument against this kind of notion (to people like this) is that dollar store scents are so good these days that if I were to consider a scent like BdC I’d run over to the dollar store and grab several bottles instead. I don’t think this person understands the aficionado position, so there would be no reason to try and make that argument to him or her. Rather, I would suggest that the person take a bit of time with some vintage “greats” and then talk about how BdC compares. And obviously, many of the vintage greats were “mass fragrances” at one time, so that is not why many aficionados do not care for BdC. If you are not seeking a scent to satisfy your desire for the sublime, however, and “just want to smell nice,” I would not be the right person to seek out for advice . Way back when, I remember disagreeing with someone about Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” notion, on the grounds that there is a percentage of the population that wants to do terrible things, and we don’t want them following their bliss, do we?

By contrast, one already encounters plenty of irritating smells in public, so that I think we can simply modify Campbell’s notions slightly, “follow your olfactory bliss in a restrained way.” Sure, it doesn’t have the same “ring” to it but it does have the merit of keeping one more grounded in reality, as these are molecules, not ethereal spirits. I doubt Mr. Burr will come around to this kind of notion, considering that (see link above): “When asked to speak more straightforwardly about what particular fragrances smell like — citrus, say, or sandalwood — Mr. Burr became inflamed,” but we can just read what he has to say, if we like, and “filter out” what we consider a strained attempt to create a muddle where one need not exist, can’t we ?

NOTE: After “publishing” the above, I thought it would be helpful to add that as a teacher I explained to students that it’s always interesting to compare two things. Doing this does not mean there is a significant similarity between the two things. In politics, one sometimes hears ludicrous comparisons, such as that so-and-so advocates policy X and so did Hitler, as if we should stop breathing air because Hitler also did! So, if Hitler liked trains to run on time, for example, that is just a reasonable expectation. If he wanted to execute those responsible if trains were a few minutes late once in a while, that would be “beyond the pale” to just about everyone today (yet he did much worse than that!). Instead, one should think about comparing two things without preconceptions, so that one might come to the conclusion that the comparison was useful in terms of the differences rather than the similarities.


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Filed under Criticizing the critics.

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