dimanche 4 novembre 2012

Newsweek's art critic sniffs out Chandler Burr

One week to go before The Art of Scent opens at the Museum of Arts and Design on November 13th. Like many fellow bloggers, I was sent a link by Chandler Burr to a profile written by the art critic Blake Gopnik for Newsweek, which shed some light into what the art world might think of “olfactory art”.

When Burr attempts to convince him that Antoine Lie and Antoine Maisondieu’s Eau de Protection for État Libre d’Orange is one of the most fascinating works ever created, in any art form”, Gopnik remains rather puzzled. Burr describes the scent as being “a portrait of a woman who is so beautiful that rose runs in her blood. And a man comes with a metal knife, and plunges it into her heart. And it is the smell of her blood, running down the blade.” A vivid image, well-suited to the scent, though a bit difficult to reconcile with Burr’s forceful statement during our debate at the Institut Français de la Mode that the stories that went with perfumes didn’t interest him in the least. Unless he only means stories provided by brands? ELO’s version seems just as valid as his.

Initially, Eau de Protection just smells “soapy” to Gopnik. He finally gets the rose. Not the blood. “‘It’s weird! It’s strange!’ Burr insists. ‘If an alarm bell doesn’t go off when you smell this, you have a neurological problem.’” Or maybe, Gopnik comments, he’s justan untutored philistine of fragrance”.

If the art critic readily admits he’s not trained enough to perceive the nuances of the scents he is presented with, Burr’s “peculiar notion” that only perfumes including synthetics can count as art is met with more robust skepticism. “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.” One can’t help wondering whether Burr’s hyperboles won’t hinder the very cause he is defending, at least in the art world. Which, unlike the perfume industry and the nascent genre of perfume criticism, comes into the field armed with a gigantic critical and philosophical corpus spanning centuries. Stating that such and such fragrance belongs to an artistic movement, or is a masterpiece, will not be sufficient to convince specialists. Gopnik concludes that “for all Burr’s proselytizing, the range of experience on offer still seems smaller than in some other art forms”, limited to “expressionist abstraction that’s all about emotion and vague hints at the world”, whereas art is “full of content (…) about almost anything that humans can think about”.

In a 2009 Washington Post article, Gopnik raised a similar point about Ferran Adrià, the famed Catalan chef of El Bulli, whose experimental approach to cuisine led the curator of the Kassel Documenta 12  (the most influential contemporary art fair in the world) to include a meal at the Barcelona restaurant as an off-site “piece” in 2007. “In fine-art terms, you could say that a lot of it is still stuck in abstractland, riffing on the same old palette (or palate) of sensations; whereas today's best art can try to say important things about the world and change the way we think about it. It's about new content as well as novel sensations.”

Gopnik stands on fairly solid ground when he analyses the potential and limitations of cuisine as an art form. While Adrià transforms textures and presentations to such an extent that familiar foods are unrecognizable until they are tasted, his avant-garde preparations remain more legible than any fragrance composition, if only because the ingredients are named, and ultimately familiar. For instance, if you’ve eaten parmesan, you’ll be able to perceive and judge the novelty of Adrià’s frozen parmesan foam.

But how can you get even a cultured, open-minded art critic to understand the groundbreaking character of Jicky? Maybe by comparing it with perfumes from the same era that didn’t use synthetics, or remained staunchly figurative, or even with a retro-engineered, all-natural version. Or perhaps smelling tincture of vanilla alongside vanillin. And wouldn’t Eau de Protection’s marriage of rose and blood become more easily perceptible by smelling rose oil and blood,  as well as the elements of rose that can marry it with the smell of blood (rose oxide, for one)? Nowhere does Gopnik state he also smelled raw materials, so I assume he didn’t. Of course, Chandler Burr is on record as saying that speaking about raw materials is irrelevant – at least as far as bloggers are concerned, since when I attended his Scented Dinner at Pitti Fragranze, several raw materials were presented with each composition…  If nothing else, Blake Gopnik’s encounter with Chandler Burr shows what a steep curve lies ahead in making people understand the aesthetic dimension of perfume: you’ve got to start with the basics, which the (now sold-out) lectures, workshops with perfumers and interactive salon will address.

In passing, Gopnik notes Burr’s uncanny linguistic abilities: “I can’t add two numbers [which can’t have helped someone with a masters degree in economics], but I can learn a language in about three months”, Burr tells him. It may be thanks to that remarkable aptitude that he was able to secure a pioneering curatorial position and considerable funds: he is the first to speak the language of perfume to the art world and the language of art to the perfume industry forcefully enough to get things moving. This is a considerable achievement, and a further step towards shifting public perception of fragrance towards more aesthetic grounds. There can be nothing more thrilling than learning a new language. If anyone knows that, it’s Chandler Burr.

As I won’t be going to New York anytime soon, I am very much looking forward to your take on The Art of Scent: when you’ve seen it, please feel free to come back and drop a comment!

30 commentaires:

  1. "A vivid image, well-suited to the scent, though a bit difficult to reconcile with Burr’s forceful statement during our debate at the Institut Français de la Mode that the stories that went with perfumes didn’t interest him in the least. Unless he only means stories provided by brands?"

    Yes, that. And also difficult to reconcile Burr's saying on one of his Untitled Series Spreecasts that it's "stupid" to talk about raw ingredients when discussing perfume when he presented the "Every Bottle Contains a World" exhibit of raw perfume materials at Pitti.

  2. I studied English Literature at university in the late'70s/early'80s. At the time, post-structuralism and deconstruction were de rigueur in literature studies. At least one major academic at the time (I can't right now remember who.. Stanley Cavell?) point-blank suggested that the humanities needed to make themselves more "scientific" to attract more grant money and funding, which were otherwise being directed towards the sciences.

    Burr's use of jargon related to the visual arts strikes me as a similar attempt at legitimacy, although, somewhat interestingly, in the opposite direction. When he uses terms, such as "photorealism" or "abstract expressionism," to describe a perfume, as he did recently when discussing Diptyque's Eau de Lierre, it is more than a bit confusing.

  3. Katie, yes, something about Burr's position on stories and raw mats doesn't compute with the fact that he *does* provide descriptions quite readily (and often vivid ones), and that he *does* present raw materials. There was no opportunity to raise the point when I did that talk with him at the Institut Français de la Mode, if memory serves.
    That said, the MAD show does include lectures and workshops where raw mats are featured, so whatever the curator's stance, this more pedagogical dimension is adressed by guest speakers.

  4. Furriner, I studied French Literature and semiology during that same period, so I know the drill! Mind you, how Derrida could be described as scientific escapes me, certainly not the later Barthes.

    Your remark about Burr's shifting the vocabulary of the art world is of course very relevant. I do think many instruments devised by art criticism can be used to think through perfume, since perfume criticism doesn't have the tool box yet. In Burr's case, so far, what seems to be happening is just a matter of rebranding: perfumers become "olfactory artists", perfumes become "pieces", brands become "sponsors", and various fragrances are ascribed to different artistic movements. How Jicky, for instance, can be "Romantic" and "Byronic" doesn't make sense chronologically since the Romantic era was long over in 1889...

    Since art has such high symbolic value in our society, of course this operation is an attempt at legitimacy. And of course the aesthetic sensibility of an era is reflected both in fine and applied arts. But as Gopnik points out, Burr is self-taught in art. The anecdote about Van Gogh is telling -- we're not talking cutting-edge, here. So that the instruments he derives from art are, as far as I can tell from his talks, not quite as "sharp" as arts or design curators'. Of course none of those people have tackled a scent exhibition in a museum, so kudos to Burr for kickstarting the process.

  5. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par un administrateur du blog.

  6. Hi all. To address a few of these interesting point. Re this “How Jicky, for instance, can be "Romantic" and "Byronic" doesn't make sense chronologically since the Romantic era was long over in 1889”, Margaret Drabble (looking at literature) holds that Romanticism was roughly 1770 to 1848 and historians Alfred Einstein (music) felt it ended between 1900 and 1910. Every aesthetic school has different dates of prominence in the different mediums in which it manifests, some schools touch many mediums—painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, literature, music, design— while others are relevant to only one, and the dates of ascendency of a single school in a single medium (modernism in architecture, say) may vary hugely by country (Germany, Britain, the U.S., Japan). Here’s another medium—scent—influenced by numerous schools (Minimalism, Photo Realism, et al)—in several different countries; the application of a school’s style will hardly be limited by year.

    Denyse “Chandler Burr is on record as saying that speaking about raw materials is irrelevant [then] several raw materials were presented with each [Scent Dinner] composition” and Katie “difficult to reconcile Burr's saying… that it's "stupid" to talk about raw ingredients when discussing perfume when he presented the "Every Bottle Contains a World" exhibit of raw perfume materials at Pitti.” True and true. I need to be clear about this. So: I’m opposed to the idiotic, systematic, and at this point virtually universal reduction of works of olfactory art to a list of raw materials, the aesthetic and intellectual equivalent of reducing a Meier tower to, say, concrete, steel, glass, styrofoam, and copper. Again, never done in discussions of architecture, almost always done in discussions of olfactory art. *That is stupid. By contrast discussing scent raw materials is as logical and necessary as discussing how architect Richard Meyer used, say, concrete, steel, glass, styrofoam, and copper to create the extraordinary, sublime Jubilee Church in Rome, how each raw material and its tensile strength or whatever quality helped Meier create his work as a whole, understanding from start to finish that the point first, last, and ultimately is the work. Not the materials. Discussions of works of olfactory art should and must include discussion of their materials, and Denyse is completely correct that the more one knows about them the better one understands the work, but a poverty of language and, in my view, a weird fear of applying the aesthetic vocabulary applied to every other artistic medium to scent means that people talk about concrete, then think they’ve talked about the Church. They haven’t. And no one outside of the medium of scent engages in this prima facie ludicrously reductionist stunted conversation about aesthetics and design. If anyone thinks I’m saying anything else (when I began assaulting in the Times another idiotic notion, that synthetics are inferior materials to naturals, many people said that Burr was opposed to naturals and believed only synthetics should be used; people hear what they want) then they can read the above paragraph.

    “you’ve got to start with the basics, which the (now sold-out) lectures, workshops with perfumers and interactive salon will address.” Exactly. cf. the Dept of Olfactory Art’s first olfactory artist, Ralf Schwieger, who is, happily, not sold out and will in principle be in residence for months to come. http://madmuseum.org/programs/open-studios and http://madmuseum.org/learn/ralf-schwieger. The lectures have only started.

    “If nothing else, Blake Gopnik’s encounter with Chandler Burr shows what a steep curve lies ahead in making people understand the aesthetic dimension of perfume.” Yes. And it will be fascinating to watch use move up the curve, smoothly or otherwise, but we will move.

  7. Chandler, thanks for taking the time to clarify these points.

    I agree focusing a discussion entirely on raw materials is limitative. But, again: the reference to raw mats is part of the work-in-progress that is perfume criticism, a nascent genre almost entirely driven by self-taught people with little direct access to either perfumers or raw materials. After all, perfumers in training also start with the building blocks, don't they? And active perfumers certainly talk about them a great deal. It is always worth questioning why an approach is so prevalent, rather that dismissing it. Something in the medium might dictate it. Very few people are actually being paid - i.e. given time and means - to elaborate any sort of aesthetic theory about fragrance, so it's pretty much a make-it-up-as-we-go, grassroots endeavour. That is worth questioning as well, as it is a unique situation for an art form.

    As for Eau de Protection, when I discussed it with Antoine Lie for my book (it didn't make the final cut), he told me another story, focusing on Rossy de Palma's very significant input, and her wish to also convey the feeling of African earth and heat. You know Etienne de Swardt, the owner of Etat Libre d'Orange, so you know that he gives great liberty to the perfumers he works with, but the initial concepts are often Etienne's; in the case of Eau de Protection, the brand material is a licit version of the story, which was strong to start with. So that you can't react to it in the same way as you would to material for a L'Oréal product, where the fragrance is picked from a "basket" of proposals and retro-engineered to fit whatever story the brand in L'Oréal's portfolio wishes to put forward.

    Being very much of the postmodern school of thought, I am more inclined to see the complexity and "impurity" of the systems I study. The people of the art world I speak with (artists, critics, curators) are certainly interested in this extension of the field of criticism.

  8. Because Chandler's commment was duplicated I suppressed the first version, which contained a reference to Eau de Protection, which explains my response: I hadn't noticed the comments were not strictly identical. Apologies.

  9. Chandler Burr keeps using the analogy of architecture to defend his dismissal of discussing perfumes in terms of notes, but architecture is a three-dimensional, visual medium, which makes "seeing" the work in totality a taken. Closer in form to perfumery would be music or poetry, where words (notes) and phrases (accords) and their complex relationships to each other have to be analyzed and diagrammed before we can begin to interpret how they interact to create and accumulate meanings.

  10. Just adding the bit about Eau de Protection from Chandler's first comment, which I deleted thinking both comments were identical:

    "Re the knife/ blood/ woman, this is in fact the artists’ description, or my interpretation of it. I still couldn’t care less what any brand person would say about a work other than its sales figures, but that’s why god gave us NPD; when Antoine Lie and Antoine Maisondieu tell you, “Here’s what we were thinking about,” that’s not a “story,” it’s the artist’s comment about their work. It’s automatically relevant."

  11. Anonymous, I agree that we can also draw analogies from poetry and music for the reasons you state. I also think that perfume has its specificities in terms of development: you actually smell different things evaporating at different speeds and overlapping rather than discrete accords, for instance.
    Also adding, re: the dismissal of fragrance reviews based on raw materials, that it would be misleading to say that this represents *all* blog reviews -- there are many different writing strategies, some of which *do* draw on the vocabulary of other art forms, though they might not actually classify scents in terms of artistic movements relevant to other art forms.

  12. All I was saying was, Chandler Burr's critical approach is analogous to writing about poetry without engaging with the poet's choice of words. Just because he is in the position to do so doesn't mean his way is the only way. After all, trendy literary theories have come and gone, but close-reading is still around.

  13. In legal terms of course, perfumery is most closely related to cuisine. I can't help but think that all that is being discussed is somewhat irrelevant if the creators have to legal protection or even identity....

  14. Ah, that was, "...no legal protection..."--my bad!

  15. Anonymous, thank you for elaborating on your comment. Yes, raw materials are "smell-words" and there's no reason not to look at how these words play with each other: after all, their qualifiers are what link them with each other or create constrast... therefore form.

  16. Marla, exactly: the status of perfumers and the protection of formulas is a much more immediate problem. That said, the acknowledgment of fragrance as an artistic creation might shift perceptions, including in legal circles.

  17. Oh what a fabulous read! Unlike that art critic trying to justify some ideological stance that the visual arts are some sort of 'supreme' art form, after my lifetime training and teaching and administrating in the Visual Arts, I did a Marcel Duchamp and decided that a lot of it was a complete wank! Especially painting.
    Every aspect of creative endeavour can be elevated to a high art form...music, architecture, applied design, literature, drama, food, and perfume. All of them have technological and commercial aspects. All require some modicum of understanding of the elements and principals, the ideas, context, skills, techniques, materials, to really appreciate, let alone create.It is not simple, and our beloved art form is only now starting its journey...
    P.S Off to the shops in Seville a l'Aube...

  18. Marion, first: you smell fabulous! Then... From what I've understood, for Gopnik perfume as a medium cannot express as wide a range of contents as other arts. This may be an ideological stance, but it can also be an observation based on Burr's demonstrations. Burr himself *does* use the currency of fine arts by defining perfumes based on their integration to major artistic movements. Much of his argumentation is based on comparisons drawn from architecture and painting, which are given significant "air time" in his talks. This is of course justifiable since it provides his listeners with more familiar points of reference, but it also reinforces the supremacy of visual arts since it uses their criteria to ascribe value to perfume as an art form.
    As you say, thinking through an aesthetic approach to perfume is a complex matter for countless reasons. In my own discussion with artists, critics and curators here in France, I have seen considerable interest for the medium, but also objections similar to Gopnik's, which seemed quite relevant. This raises the question of defining perfume not only through criteria drawn from other arts. I think fashion theory can probably prove to be a more useful "tool box".

  19. Denyse, I wonder if instead of trying to make dubious analogies between perfumery and the fine arts, particularly modern and contemporary painting,it might not be more fruitful to consider it a craft like fine cabinetry, goldsmith work, and the like that can rise to very high levels of skill and workmanship. That, in any case, is what I think it has been in the past. I am very eager to attend the exhibition at MAD and wish that you were coming here to see it and to comment!
    Ariane (NYC)

  20. Ariane, if I remember correctly, Jean-Claude Ellena distinguishes his work from craft, saying that a craftsman would know where he was going, whereas when he started out it was to create a new form. My feeling is that perfume straddles many fields, some of them artistic, others more relevant to fashion, industry, design, etc., and that it is precisely this "impurity" that makes it such an interesting field to study.

  21. I find it rather hard to understand what that critic was getting at, as what I took away from those comments was "Artforms are invalid if they're abstract", a rather strange notion in my view.

    Any music that isn't vocal ( and even some that is ) is essentially stuck in abstraction. As much as music critics like to imagine that a work has inherent meaning ( I've read a rather long-winded piece about how Mahler's late symphonies were "predicting" WW1, and apparently Mahler decided to be entirely unhelpful and encode it in a form no-one could discern ), fundamentally it is sound hitting your ear and open to your interpretation.

    Art can be a social critique and observation, but it's no less valid as art when it isn't. I'd honestly hate to see perfumery criticism drenched in the patchwork retroactive meanings classical music critics are fond of assigning works. ( "Is Angel a perfume, or cutting diatribe against obesity in the first world?" )

  22. Sugandaraja, I'm not sure at all that's what Blake Gopnik meant to say. I understood that in his view, perfume was a more limited medium than some other art forms, and it's hard to disagree with that.
    And frankly, I quite like the idea of Angel as a comment on the first world's sweet tooth. It may not be a diatribe but it certainly expresses something of our society.

  23. To dissmiss the perfume analogy to architecture.
    A perfumes delivers a message. A wide array of feelings delights and trigered emotions that counts as a message. Intended and/or discovered by the author, recognized by those who craved for it. (do I have to talk about the elephant in the cave story?)
    So any passerby can give a valuable statment about your perfume "building".
    Moreover, in architecture, the materials are hidden, in perfume all materials are present.
    And coumpounds names are handy to talk about perfumes, and compare how someone prefers this orange flower to the other.

    For the art history : yeah a new idea provides echoes in many areas in art and in geography even decades after.
    But don't blurr the issue, the overall problem is that most perfumelovers -as me- are wondering if you're not just saying random bullshits.
    An overlay of culture, judgemental statements about natural coumpounds, and a lack of pertinent ideas of your own.
    At least commit yourself to one idea, of say when you make 180° about a conception of yours. So we can start to trust you and your sincerity, and give some credit to what you say.

  24. Julien, I agree that materials don't play the same role in a fragrance than in a building. What's more, why not talk about concrete? It's revolutionized architecture. Comparaison n'est pas raison...

  25. Actually, you're talking about the sole things that I think relate fragrance to building : that a new discovered molecule allows sometimes brand new constructions to creators. (kashmeran, damascone, ... hedione, ... vanillin)

    The rest of the comparison is fudge to me.
    If we compare naturals in perfume, as the pigment for paintings, we can produce turquoise pigment and still pay due homage to the original stone, as an inspiration and reference. And keep search for a turquoise shade even better than the stone.
    It would be stupid to forbid people to use the world "turquoise" "sky blue" "blue lagon" "emerald green", just because it pays homage to its original inspiration.
    And noone reduces Van Gogh's starlight night magic to the use of vivid yellow and deep blue. We can't seriously reduce one perfume to its ingredient. Some does by superficiality, some others for the commercial plot, it's wrong, but the cure won't come by a ban on the original coumpounds.

  26. Julien, I think Burr is quite reductionist when he says bloggers only speak about raw materials and never use the language of art, but of course there's so much writing out there no one could ever keep up, so he may have based his opinion on very few samples.
    And of course, I agree, there's no reason to exclude speaking about materials or notes on principle. We've all started learning about perfume by discerning notes. It's only afterwards we can go further and discuss more complex issues.

    The one thing though is that sometimes lists of notes can orient our expectations and make us miss out on effects, because we're so bent on trying to identify the notes.

    I guess the main thing is that the talks and workshops around the exhibition *do* offer an insight on raw materials, so that the public *will* learn about them, with perfumers like Ralf Schwieger, or Ron Winnegrad who runs the IFF school in New York. I'm sure that will be fascinating.

  27. I'm late to the party, but what a fabulous discussion! All I would like to add is that in some styles of architecture, the "raw materials" are not hidden.

  28. Scent Hive, there's something that bugs me about the "we don't take about concrete or paint pigment" argument put forward to criticize discussion of raw materials in perfumes. If nothing else, because CB seems to assimilate these to notes (i.e. the effects created by the interaction of raw mats). But also because we're dealing with a different type of perception...
    Anyway, thanks for popping in!

  29. Denyse, I apologize for being extremely late to this conversation, but better late than never. As someone very invested in the question of whether perfume is art, I think the comment you made about Jean Claude Ellena not knowing where he is going when he starts making a perfume is an important point. I believe it's all about intention and the way perfume is disseminated that makes something art. It's a spirit of independence, a spirit of unique voices, and the unknowability of the creative process that makes something art. Making perfume for a client, whether it be a bespoke fragrance or one for Loreal, limits the creative possibilities to the point where the artistry of perfumery is made irrelevant. Of course, very few have the freedom that Ellena does. I find Burr's efforts to use the language of visual art to legitimate perfumery as an art form is weak. It deserves its own language, it's own vocabulary based on its own history. Exhibits like The Art of Scent can put us on the path towards something like it, but there needs to be a much larger theoretical and critical discussion not limited to Burr's rather hyperbolic and unchallenged declarations.

  30. Katherine, this is very much a conversation that needs to be kept going. One of the issues in considering perfume from an artistic standpoint is that its history is murky and its processes often undisclosed. So that finding its language, defining creative movements, etc, is very difficult for outsiders, while insiders don't have the time, freedom, interest or knowledge to work on these issues. Hence, one type of marketing gets replaced by another: "It's art because I say it is".
    Thanks for weighing in, and please don't hesitate to pick up the ball!