As there’s very little chance I’ll make it to New York before “The Art of Scent” exhibition closes, I was glad to read Jessica’s thoughtful review of it on Now Smell This, as well as Alyssa Harad’s discussion of the issues it raises.
Somehow Wordpress won’t let me comment on Alyssa’s post (and I'm not enough of a geek to solve the problem, clearly). It's a pity since I’d have loved to join the conversation, especially since Alyssa and I seem to be thinking along several similar lines. For instance on the performative/narrative character of perfume and the parallel between the perfume and film industry. These are points I developed in The Perfume Lover, and/or raised when I was invited to debate with Chandler at the Institut Français de la Mode (the podcast is available in French on the IFM’s website).
While working on my book, I struggled for weeks with my "Is perfume an art?" chapter. I never reached a convincing result, so ended taking a different tack and describing the approach of a certain number of perfumers or brands that *cross* the gestures and stances of art. But ultimately, the fact that perfume is performed, that it generates narratives and interaction, induced me to refer to Nicolas Bourriaud's relational aesthetics as a possible interpretative framework (I discussed this with Bourriaud, who now heads the Paris Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and he tended to agree). In fact, I’d contend that the extraordinarily vibrant online perfume culture is the ultimate expression of these relational aesthetics: it has made perfume-as-performance, and perfume-as-narrative-generator, come into its own.
I agree with Alyssa's line of thinking: instead of attempting to "purify" perfume, it would be much more fertile to use its "impurity" (feminine, erotic, ephemeral, commercial, but also sacred, medicinal, scientific) to challenge the boundaries of art (blurring rather than burring, as it were).
I’m grateful to Jessica, Alyssa and all the people who commented on their posts for taking the discussion further. Alyssa has already linked to my post about the Newsweek article on the show (thanks, Alyssa!). Here are a few more links that bear on the same topics:
Newsweek’s art critic sniffs out Chandler Burr (with a response by Chandler)