Not long ago, on the FromPyrgos blog, there was a post in which it was argued that these olfactory concoctions should be regarded more as “design” than fine art, and I generally agree with this, and in fact I might prefer to call it a craft. To me, this is not derogatory at all, and in fact, I often think more highly of craftspeople than “fine artists.” But there’s a nagging question in the back of my mind, which is, why not just enjoy these concoctions and not worry about what Chandler Burr or Luca Turin or some guy on some blog has to say? If “the industry” cares, let them, but why should I?
In any case, while I tend to come down on the side of design, I’m thinking one can go further. The reason is that our sense of smell may be significantly different than our sense of sight in this context. For example, let’s say you have a few gourmand scents you enjoy. One may be licorice-oriented, another may be coffee-oriented, etc. At some point, there are no more options. Instead, you may encounter a different coffee-oriented scent and want to own it, but in my experience, you eventually come to think that you only “need” one of them. And even if you want to own three or four such scents, there is a rather small number, so that if you own an excellent assortment, in the form of a few hundred bottles, you may begin to think that “less is more,” because having too many scents means that your preferences keep shifting around – that’s been my experience, and I don’t even do that much sampling!
By contrast, do people who enjoy “Old Master” paintings ever get tired of seeing ones they haven’t seen before? Don’t many such people enjoy seeing the same “masterpieces” over and over again, and yet they often aren’t that interested in “lesser” works? I’ve encountered quite a bit of that sort of attitude. Many, including those who aren’t that interested in “fine art,” seem to think that they will get a kind of spiritual awakening by seeing or being in the physical presence of such paintings. It’s certainly not hedonistic in any way, whereas with these olfactory concoctions, that seems to be one major motivating factor (it certainly is with me), though most seem to think of these as useful for impressing others or as a personal hygiene enhancer. Some do view fragrance as a status symbol, which is an area of commonality with “fine art,” but only a small number of people would even think to compare the “Mona Lisa” to a niche scent, for example.
And this brings me to a point which is referenced by the painting above. Monkeys have done similar “works,” and some very young children have been said to create pai8ntings “as good as Picasso,” though of course it may have mostly been gallery owners who pursued such a notion aggressively. With these concoctions we view as valuable, meaning that they far surpass the ones you can get at the dollar store, nearly anyone can create something “halfway decent.” For instance, if you got to a major site that sells essential oils, such as Bulk Apothecary, you can read reviews of the essential oils and some comments include recipes for fragrances. I have no doubt that I’d rather wear some of these “homemade” mixtures than most recent designer scents, and here I think we might be able to compare a painting by an elephant to a fragrance, at least if we accept abstract imagery as legitimate.
Now there’s another way to look at this, which is that we have no idea what the animals are thinking when they make those paintings, and it’s highly unlikely that a very young child can experience what adults do when they claim to have a deeply spiritual experience. Instead, it seems that the focus is on the “finished product” (when claims about “art” are made in such cases). So, with fragrances, we’ve got two options (if we want to go beyond a “nice smell”). one being that the perfumer is some sort of “creative genius,” and the other being that it’s just really difficult (if not impossible) for the “average Joe” to create certain kinds of olfactory concoctions, no matter how much effort he (or she) may be willing to devote to the effort. The former is the fine art position and the latter is the craft/design/artisanal kind of one.
Lastly, I’ll conclude with a recent post from the Basenotes.net site:
I don’t understand Harrods Swarovski Oud. I purchased a 10 ml sample for $48 because of all the great review about this one…. here’s my take on this one… ok smells very unique… it has the leather oud and oud wood similarity, but this one sure gives me a bad headache. I read somewhere that bond added ISO super E to this one…. I think that’s what it is…. what I don’t get about harrods swarovski oud is that it also have this weird musky dirty clothes vibe. This fragrance just left me clueless why so many people refers to bonds best fragrance? I love ny oud, but am not too sure about harrods swarovski oud…
One can talk about how fragrance molecules actually enter your body and have physical contact with certain cell receptors (which might lead to a headache), or how the person seems to be a “newbie” who sought a kind of spiritual experience, or why people think that anonymous members of an aficionado site must be right about something that is so obviously subjective, etc. But at some point it almost becomes a “word salad” to me. That is, I just don’t care any longer, and I think the reason is that if someone wants to state an opinion that is too wide-ranging, I realize that it is not something that is resolvable, and I lose interest very quickly. I actually become more interested in the argumentation process or methods than the topic itself! And when I am satisfied with my understanding of that element, I can just go back to enjoying my scents without any concern about what to call what I am experiencing.
UPDATE: Not long after I finished my first draft of the above, I was thinking that many new “designer” scents seem like they were conceived the way “Hollywood Blockbuster” films are, with a target audience (s) in mind, and a bit of this and that for a sense of completeness. Some contain something novel while others do not. So, is this “design?” Couldn’t one argue that it’s almost “anti-design?” The fact that most non-niche scents originate as corporate briefs (with perfumers perhaps viewed as “errand boys” by those who make the final decisions), and budgets are often very tight for the liquid (while the bottles that contain that liquid often cost considerably more than necessary), lead me to think of these products as being beloved by those who are one step beyond sociologist Max Weber’s notion of “sensualists without heart.” But to end on a positive note, I believe those who read blogs such as this one possess plenty of heart !