Expensive stuff that smells more or less like perfume

Artists can draw or paint or snap pictures—or make films and videos and installations—that talk, directly and with force, about almost anything that humans can think about. Artists can go for the wildly scatological or the emphatically political; they can craft experiences that work below the belt or speak to our most abstract mental capacities; they can please, but they can also enrage or disgust. Whereas most perfumers make expensive stuff that smells more or less like perfume.

— Art critic Blake Gopnik, from NY Museum Stages First ‘Scent’ Exhibit at the Daily Beast, a long discussion of Chandler Burr's upcoming exhibit, The Art of Scent at The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. The exhibit opens a week from Tuesday.

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  1. Joe says:

    I’d like to tie his smug butt down and spritz him with Sécrétions Magnifiques. Then, after a rest, we can move on to Muscs akublaï Khan.

    Finally, to appeal to his abstract mental capacities, we can veil him in a cloud of L’Heure Blue and send him on his way.


    • Robin says:

      Interesting — we had very different reactions to the article. I thought he made some very good points about the problems perfume faces in terms of being accepted as a potential art form, but then, my opinion on perfume as an art form is probably very different from that of many in the perfume community.

      If it is an art form, it’s got to be the first art form that is made by large corporations and widely sold to consumers for everyday use.

      • BChant says:

        I agree that the author makes some good points. Because perfume is mostly a commercial enterprise, I think it will be a hard road ahead for perfume to be taken seriously as art. This of course begs the questions, should it be? Perfume to me is about glamor and beauty and the art is merely incidental.

        • Robin says:

          No idea if it should be, and honestly not something I care about either way. I do realize that’s probably not how most perfumistas feel.

      • Joe says:

        Sorry, I need to read the full article; my visceral reaction was to the pull quote. I agree that perfumery is perhaps a unique case in looking at — to use grad-school jargon — “the intersection and conflation of art and commerce.”

      • Lucy says:

        Not necessarily, Robin. The framed prints section at the front of any Bed, Bath, and Beyond is full of mass produced copies of artwork from Van Gogh, Monet, Vettriano, etc. Do they cheapen the originals or make them not art? (I’m asking this as an opening to thought provoking conversation, not being sarcastic.). Perhaps the perfumer creates the original work of art and we wear the copies?

        • Robin says:

          Van Gogh, though, painted what he wanted to: his paintings are his artistic vision. Perfumers who are doing what they want are rare indeed: it is not how 99% of perfume is created. That there are masterpieces of perfumery, mind you, is not something I’m disputing, nor do I have any objection to displaying those masterpieces in a museum — I think that’s great.

          • Robin says:

            But will add that Gopnik is right on that score too: the only way you’ll get those masterpieces displayed in a museum is if the perfume companies pay for it — which is exactly what is happening.

          • Dilana says:

            I think the writers point wasn’t about whether the sort wad created for profit or under a tight contract. ThE point was ths t painter can paint in a large scope of styles snf topics. A. Nose ultimately worked within the tangy of creating pleasing smelling perfume. Yrs some people can disti anguish greats r

      • C.H. says:

        Won’t have a chance to read the articles ’til later and definitely want to–this discussion sounds fascination!–but just wanted to jump in to say quickly that (some!) television seems to me to qualify as art “made by large corporations and widely sold to consumers for everyday use” (film can be everyday use too, if you’re enough of a Netflix Instant addict!) Lots of famous novels were written as serials for for-profit newspapers (hi Dickens!) And then also: fashion? And arguably, interior design? There was an interesting article in the New Yorker last year about IKEA’s origins as a kind of utopian aesthetic undertaking (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_collins). So I don’t think perfume would be so alone in qualifying!

      • fumemad says:

        Perhaps it is the first art form to be widely sold (although I’d have to agree with Lucy about the prints) – but art and commerce have not necessarily mutually exclusive. For a Van Gogh who died a pauper, there are many more painters who made a good living as painters – painters do work on commissions. Does that make someone like Van Eyck any less of an artist because he was well paid for it? I don’t think the involvement of commerce in art devalues the artistic merit of an artwork.
        I do think that things like advertisements can be art, however, so am not exactly a purist when it come to art. ;)

      • bluegardenia says:

        I think it’s a good point you make, Robin. I do think of perfume as artistic, and i get great pleasure and stimulation out of it in a similar way to painting or sculpture…but it’s removed from the fine art world in the same way that pop songs can be incredibly great but aren’t displayed in galleries alongside sound installations by fine artists. Displaying commercial perfumes at the museum of art and design is the same as displaying an eames chair. It’s more about design than the formal definition of art.

    • 50_Roses says:

      Obviously, the writer is not a perfumista LOL! I wonder if some people have a reduced ability to distinguish between different scents, just as some people are tone deaf or color blind?

      I do have to disagree, however, with Chandler Burr’s belief that only perfumes containing synthetic ingredients can be considered art. Certainly, the introduction of synthetic aromachemicals vastly increased the perfumer’s palette, and allowed for a far wider range of scent types, but even an all natural perfume is an artificial creation in the sense that it does not occur intact in nature. For instance, I doubt whether there is any place on earth where the exact scent of Aftelier Secret Garden can be found wafting in the air naturally. There is not single plant, animal, or mineral which can be extracted to produce the complete perfume. The variety of natural oils, absolutes, and resins it contains have been put together in a combination which would never occur in nature. One might as well say that Michelangelo’s Pieta is not a work or art, because it it composed of natural stone.

      • Robin says:

        Totally agree — if perfume is an art, hard to see why it should require synthetic components.

        • pyramus says:

          Burr seems not to have noticed that every single component of even natural perfumery requires human intervention to make them usable. We don’t just dump petals and chunks of wood into a bottle with alcohol for a solvent: we age vanilla and oakmoss, process flowers via enfleurage, extract citrus oils with a press. That makes them “synthetic”, surely.

          Burr is a good writer, but more often than not he strikes me as opinionated in the worst way, someone who will hear no opinions but his own, and pretentious on top of that. His description of Eau de Protection is nonsense.

          • egabbert says:

            I tend to agree. I think Burr’s book about Luca Turin is truly brilliant, but he can come off as so strident and grouchy, which is only made more irritating when his opinions don’t feel entirely consistent. I mean it’s one thing to insist that Rossy de Palma is a weird perfume; it’s another to accuse you of having neurological problems if you don’t recognize that. (It’s really not THAT weird!) But on the whole I think he is doing good, important and interesting work on behalf of perfume. I’m going to be in New York later this month and am really looking forward to checking out the exhibit.

      • Joe says:

        I’m such a Facebook junkie that I wanted to click the “like” button for 50_Roses’s comment. ;-)

        • fumemad says:

          Me too! Double like. :)

      • Lys says:

        I almost can’t believe he’d make that assertion so I’d have to read the article. Medieval painting ties spiritual value to the material value of the physical pigments used. Natural compounds can act as fixatives. The distinction between natural and synthetic seems arbitrary as does a subordination of natural materials to synthetics. Unless cave paintings don’t count as Art. Will have to read this now.

      • Dilana says:

        Most people have for less ability to distinguish bettween scents than fans ogle this blog. The motion that. The ‘re are different rose ss Englewood scenes would dream strange to most. Think the writers. Main point is that artists in recognized arts have s very wide range of subject matter of styles of svsle etc
        In the end perfumerd make pleasant smelling performs, a range of ” sort,”, which the writers thought is narrow.

        • Dilana says:

          I apologize to everyone for the incoherence. So much for my attempt to comment using a cell phone under less than ideal circumstances. For the record, I was trying to say, most people would find it strange that people can make distinctions between a number of sandlewood rose perfumes, and in the end nearly all perfumers make pleasant smelling alcohol, oil or waterbased solutions for people to apply.

      • bluegardenia says:

        Exactly!! Not sure what burr is talking about in that part. Strange.

    • Lys says:

      I didn’t like the author’s repeated assertion that perfumes just smell like perfumes. It’s like saying classical music just sounds like classical music so it’s not Art, and a great symphony is no better than any other piece of classical music b/c it’s basically played by the same types of instruments.

  2. ladymurasaki says:

    Vile cretin.

  3. Lucy says:

    I’ve never had a piece of art speak to me the way a well constructed fragrance does.

    • ^^ This is SO TRUE for me, too! I’ve never had a painting speak to me the way some fragrances do.

      Which is making me start to wonder… is something wrong with my brain?? After reading a recent post and its comments on here (“What’s Your Favorite Perfume”) I’m starting to think that this hobby, and my obsession with perfume, might be abnormal.

      • Poppie says:

        “Abnormal” sounds so — negative. Having a well cultivated and sensitive appreciation for scents is ‘different’ in a good way.

    • Lys says:

      LOL for me it’s the reverse. Even tho I think there is art in perfume.

      • Lys says:

        Re: 50_roses comment, here it is:

        ‘To count as art, Burr insists, “a thing must be artificial; it is impossible to create art entirely with nature”—which would come as a surprise to the medieval masters who sourced all their paints in the natural world. Burr, self-taught in aesthetic theory, seems to have conflated the artifice found in art with a chemist’s idea of the artificial, and now he won’t let go of that conflation.’

        Guess the author and I are similarly sceptical altho to be fair synthetics have allowed new olfactory structures whereas a lot of all natural perfumes are pretty 2D (“mushy”). Burr either needs more exposure to pre-20th century scent – cannot believe the rich olfactory history of the Middle East artistically counts for nothing! – or to keep in mind modern natural scents like Breath of God where discrete natural accords are layered to create dimensional effects on par with the synthetics.

        He also needs to work with people who are more than “self-taught” in aesthetic theory before he starts misspeaking and miseducating the non-perfume people that are going to attend his exhibits. I respect his nose and his ability as a critic but he lost me, for example, when he declared that Jean Claude Elena’s perfumes are the olfactory equivalent of Minimalism in painting.

    • pigoletto says:

      Anything creative or emotional (and what’s creativity if not emotional?) is subjective, so there’s no right or wrong in X moving you more than Y or Y not moving you at all. I’m just basing what I’m saying strictly on the above blurb – what I find interesting is that people who are wholly moved by X want to defend it with logical reasoning, and then dismiss Y – just not possible, and close minded to boot. Emotional ‘logic’ in trying to justify X over Y tends to only be logical for the rabid fan(s) of X. To anyone willing to see it as neither right or wrong, it’s just POV, and POV can be anything to anyone. Anyone remember The Phantom Tollbooth – Milo visits the Thin Man, who looks normal, but explains to to fat men, he is thin, to skinny ones he is fat, to tall men he is short, etc. When Milo points out that he’s none of the above, he gets hushed up and then gets explained POV.

  4. sweetgrass says:

    I take issue, as others have, with the idea that in order to be art, something has to be artificial. I don’t see why a scent made with natural materials (like Aftelier’s) is any less “art” than one that’s entirely synthetic.

    The idea that “you cannot make art entirely with nature” is absurd. That’s pretty much what Andy Goldsworthy does, though I guess in his case you could say that the art is in the intervention and documentation thereof, not the materials.

    That said, I guess I see perfume as belonging less to the realm of the fine arts (painting, sculpture, installation, etc.) than to the realm of design (fashion, interior, architecture, etc). Can it be expressive/evocative? Yes, absolutely, but it also has a function and sometimes it’s mostly function (commodity) and very little expression.

    • Robin says:

      I would say that’s pretty close to how I see perfume: in the realm of design rather than a fine art. Which, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of inclusion in a museum, but I would say that for many people, even that assertion is debatable; again, I don’t think this exhibit would be happening if the fragrance companies weren’t funding it.

      • Lys says:

        Re: the funding, most Manhattan art galleries have become equally corporately sponsored! 8D

        • Robin says:

          True, but not by corporations that are producing the product on display, right?

          • Robin says:

            Although as Jessica pointed out to me, that is how most fashion exhibits in major museums are funded — by fashion companies.

    • 50_Roses says:

      I would also place perfume is roughly the same realm as fashion and the decorative arts. I do not consider that it is in quite the same realm as painting or sculpture. I would, incidentally, place architecture somewhere between these two . All the same, I do consider perfumery an art, in much the same way that pottery, glassware, jewelry, and textiles can be considered art. I have often seen examples of each of these on display in art museums.

  5. Erin says:

    As I said on FB – Hi Joe! – I think it’s interesting that Gopnik admits he is untutored in perfumery, and it’s clear from the tone of the article he’s uninterested, and yet from one exhibit, he feels qualified to comment on how much content (or lack there of) there is in fragrance. I really tend to lean towards his or your belief, R, that perfumery is closer to design, and some of his points are insightful, but personally I feel that there’s limited content in modern visual art and modern orchestral music. Why? Because I’m a boob. I know nothing about either. So I wouldn’t write articles about it until I knew more.

    Also, find the tone of some of his remarks about Burr’s looks (“big-boned”) and personality distasteful. Given the temperment you can glean from the article and Gopnik’s author photo, I’d be worried about the tables ever being turned.

    • Robin says:

      I thought “big-boned” was odd too. I still don’t understand what that term means anyway.

      On the untutored front — don’t know how this article came about, but assumed that CB is trying to get mainstream art critics interested rather than the other way around, and it is probably the case that there aren’t many (or any?) well known mainstream art critics who are also perfumistas. So if he wants to attract interest beyond the world of those who are already knowledgeable about perfume, he has to try to tutor them himself, which sort of seems like what he was trying to do here, and it seems to me that he failed to convince Gopnik. I thought Gopnik was fair & honest about the fact that he doesn’t understand perfume and isn’t all that interested, and don’t agree that that should preclude him from writing about it — this sentence:

      “And here he is, this pioneer in scent art, confronted once again by his obvious challenge: How to get even dedicated aesthetes, untrained in the ways of the nose, to get as much as he does from smells.”

      pretty much summed it all up, for me. It is not perfumistas that CB needs to convince — that’s preaching to the choir.

      (And will add that I don’t see Eau de Protection as “one of the most fascinating works ever created, in any art form” either — so maybe I too have a neurological problem)

      • Erin says:

        Oh, I agree that CB probably courted the review. And I don’t have the same taste as CB or would chose the scents he chose to “exhibit” or even choose him to be the curator of a scent show – his arguments were not convincing either. But my mother-in-law, who is not interested in perfume and is not a “dedicated aesthete” – she does not have a post-secondary education, let alone an art history doctorate from Oxford – could have made more of an effort than “it all smells like perfume, warm or cold”. The tone of the argument about it not having as much content as “real art” makes it clear that this was a preconception, the line of reasoning he was planning to serve up. I would expect more from any art or design critic worth courting.

      • Erin says:

        Would also say that I pity the NYC art scene if an article was needed on the topic of Gopnik going out to an exhibit uninterested in perfume and returning in the same condition.

        • Erin says:

          Sorry, posting too quickly! I should have said “going out to an exhibit uninterested and untutored and returning the same”. Because obviously he could remain uninterested in synthetic cubism after an exhibit and write a negative review about it — since he apparently knows something about it. And still very few people would go. Because that is the challenge for ALL exhibits: getting anybody to care.

        • Robin says:

          Great line even before you changed it!

    • annemarie says:

      I agree that there is a tone of almost deliberate philistinism in Gopnik’s piece, which is disappointing. Your mother-in-law would have a mind more open to new ideas than our critic.

      However, I was unimpressed with Burr’s remarks about art and the artificial. I’m also wondering why, to quote Gopnik, ‘[Burr] explains that No. 5 was the first perfume built around aldehydes, synthetic molecules that barely have smell-cousins in nature’ when I thought Tilar Mazzeo, in her book about No 5, had exposed that for a myth. I have given away my copy of her book, but wasn’t Quelques Fleurs the first aldehyldic perfume? Hopefully someone will correct me if I’m wrong.

      • Robin says:

        Admit I have no idea, but also thought the point about Chanel No 5 was the “overdose” of aldehydes & not that it was the first to use aldehydes or be built around aldehydes?

        • annemarie says:

          Yes, No 5 was ‘overdosed’ apparently, whereas before aldehydes had been used in lesser quantities (as I understand it).

          I guess the accuracy of Burr’s remark revolves firstly around whether he was accurately quoted by Gopnik, and if so, what Burr meant by ‘built around aldehydes’. ‘Built around’ does suggest substantial use and no 5 was the first perfume to make substantial use. But a casual reader may come away believing that No 5 was literally the first to use aldehydes.

          Oh well. That’s enough dancing around on the head of a pin for today!

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