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 just “an 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!