dimanche 25 novembre 2012

Discussion on "The Art of Scent" kicks off

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:

7 commentaires:

  1. I am going to sound like a complete troglodyte for saying this, but...it seems to me there's a lot of angst going around as far as what art form we should be glomming perfume onto- painting, architecture, sculpture, music?? To me it seems sort of obvious that perfume has been wedded to fashion...forever, maybe even trending with the newest gowns of the priestesses of Aphrodite from Ancient Greece?? Fashion has a vocabulary and an aesthetic history. But is fashion/clothing/adornment too obvious a partner now? Too lowly to be considered art? (The people at the V&A Museum would disagree, I think.) I am obviously missing something big here.

  2. Marla, when I make a parallel between perfume and the cinema, it's as industries, not formally or aesthetically, inasmuch as modern perfumery and the cinema both developed "studio systems" in which creative minds expressed their style within constraints, aiming to please a wide audience, just as the fine arts were veering into the avant-gardes.
    I do believe fashion theory would yield good instruments to analyze perfume, though not because they've been linked forever (fashion as we know it doesn't go quite that far back). But that's not happening yet.
    Elements for understanding the medium can certainly be drawn from every field of creativity: I think what people aren't comfortable with in this discussion is restricting the parallel to modern art, on the terms set by the MAD exhibition.

  3. Thank you for the kind mention, D, and thanks especially for gathering up all your posts in one place. I'll add a link to this page so the truly obsessed can catch up. (I feel very sad that the blog wouldn't let you comment, though. It does hold everyone's first comment for moderation. Maybe that was the trouble? Come back if you have the patience to try again.)

    I agree that the art/not-art conversation is ultimately unsatisfying, though perhaps inevitable given the power dynamics and hierarchies in play. And I like your characterization of the online perfume community as an extension of perfume's performative/narrative aspect very much. That is definitely one of the things I had in mind when I suggested that thinking about perfume as performance makes personal storytelling relevant and helpful as a report on, or even expansion of that performance.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to translate these ideas into curatorial choices?

    I clearly need to get a hold of your book from across the waters. Will you be visiting when it comes out in the U.S. this spring? Maybe we can have some kind of confab.

  4. Alyssa, Wordpress just said it didn't recognize me (how rude of it) and directed me to the support page, which was typically unsupportive.

    Part of the argument I had with Chandler at the IFM was precisely about the fact that perfume does not occur until it is worn, until it becomes part of someone's life and story. As wearers never actually encounter a "naked" fragrance -- the name, the brand, the bottle are always part of the interaction -- they are also part of the "performer's" story and it seems very reductive to push them out of the picture.

    I'd say that the perfume community gave expression to something that was always-already present in scent. By shifting part of the conversation to perfumers and their signature, what came about was a "politique des auteurs", half a century after the Cahiers du Cinéma formulated the concept for movies. And that's a major shift as well.

    As for curatorial choices, well, let's say there are a number of art/fashion/design curators here in Paris open to discussion.

    I don't have firm plans yet for New York in spring, but definitely we should be meeting up if I come!

  5. Ah, well I look forward to Curator Beaulieu, then! And dangit, I will bring up the WP issue with my web person. I've had the problem myself on Ari's blog and have never solved it. At any rate, you are linked now. The web is so much fun sometimes--one big international conference room.

  6. Alyssa, wouldn't it be fun if it were a real-world conference though? There was a tiny bit of one as Exsence but it only lasted an hour, so frustrating!
    Not sure I'm up to curatorship -- it's a profession, after all. But it would certainly be thrilling to be part of a team.