Saturday, June 12, 2010

What form of art is perfume?

One of the things that has fascinated me about perfume since I first fell down the rabbit hole is the notion of an associated language.  Most art forms have an attendant vocabulary -- what is this "fade out" (unique to vision + time art), this "ellipsis of time" (shared between motion picture and text, presented differently mechanically, yet leading to the same assumption), this "gesture" (a term heard relating to acting and to visual arts, but which can diverge quite a bit from their overlapping meaning).  When I started paying attention to perfume, and to people who wrote about it, you could almost see the reaching for ways to communicate the olfactory experience.  There was the concrete ("notes,"), the experiential metaphor (the makes me feel like path, which can lead you to some purple prose), the parallel metaphor (trying to equate a perfume with a piece of music, for example).  The parallel metaphor seemed to swim in the same pool of exploration as the attempts to explain what the experience of perfume is.

In 2-D visual art, you have lines and relationships and color and "gesture" and such to communicate a representation.

In prose, you have vocabulary and turn of phrase and arrangement of plot and information you choose to leave in or out, assembled in linear time, to communicate an experience.

In music, you have tonal quality and a choice of pitch scaffolds (scales of various sorts) to hang notes presented in linear time, and a choice of one note or many at any given moment on that line, and a choice of voices (generated by humans, or instruments, or what have you) singly or in combination at any given moment on that line, which can be arranged into motifs which are repeated and varied or abandoned or not.

In film, a visual frame (which can present the {illusion of} motion, or a static image) and a soundtrack are assembled in linear time, and make use of how objects are placed in the frame, gesture, movement, dialogue, ambient sound, color, ellipses, etc.  Or not.

In dance, you have a three dimensional frame, the movement through which, as well as the gestures of the dancers themselves, is presented in linear time, usually along with a soundtrack.  Styles of gesture are recognized ("ballet," "tango," "jazz"), punctuation of time is integral.  As it is with music and film and textual narrative, natch.  But here, the punctuation is not disconnected from the body creating the expression.  The body is the punctuation.  Perhaps that's why I missed saying it before?

In theater, you have a three dimensional frame in which you place objects and people through which you move characters and sound and other elements over linear time.

In perfume, what do you have?

First of all, you have sensory input to a receptor that is not employed in any other of the traditional "fine arts."  Your nose, natch.  Forms and mechanics of reception are important.  Entire schools of criticism have developed around reception being The Thing that is important in understanding, particularly when it comes to art.

But since the ragged assembly of art forms and how they are expressed I offered focuses on what is presented, let's attempt to speak to that.

In perfume, you have the presentation of different notes (the smell of x), in different voices, arranged singly or in multiples, over the course of linear time.

It seems so simple.  But really, should those notes be expressed by their cognate in reality?  I.e., should we say cinnamon, or the word for the molecule that when bound in a given fashion, is the thing which lands in your nose and makes you think "cinnamon"?  What if it smells like a cognate, but is lab created?  I.e., peach or Persicol?

Can we tease out the difference between a "chord" and an "accord"?  As in, is there a difference in simply assembling given notes because a perfumer likes the effect of them sharing the same space in the same time from a perfumer assembling notes and creating a resulting effect that is uniquely identifiable and more than simply the sum of its parts?  When we here a C minor 7th, do we hear the individual notes, or the mood?  Does it depend on where the root is located?  Will the language here get confusing?

Anyway, I think like this.  I haven't yet wrapped my head around it all in a way that I am comfortable with.  And I think that is partly because the community is still very much in the process of locating a definition, and a language.  All languages, of course, are always being shaped to one extent or another.  But this one is kinda being birthed as a golem:  fully present, but still in need of shaping.

Andy Tauer offers a lovely vision of what he sees the art of perfume.  He refers to perfume as an "immersive sculpture."  Apparently, this phrase is now part of the Tauer text...on PR materials, his new packaging, and will appear soon on the website and blog.  He offered a brief post two days ago about it, framing the concept within an interviewer's request to explain "what is immersive sculpture?"

He uses the immersive sculpture idea to suggest mutable three-dimensionality, and the idea that it is a form the wearer/receiver inhabits.

Andy's found a way to weave reception right into the concept, a way which won't let you ignore it.

I'm intrigued.

I'm still plugging away with my cognates, of course (I lean toward music and film), but the empty areas are kind of cocking an eyebrow over there and saying "you have to pay attention."

I am.


La Bonne Vivante said...

This is really great. It is a struggle, trying to come up with ways to describe the experience of perfume, and one which requires awareness, for sure! I myself have an unfortunate leaning towards purple prose, as well as gestures towards external equivalences in other art forms. I really like the way you are showing us your thought processes as you struggle towards understanding what exactly it means to write about perfume, and whether it is possible to develop a methodolgy that helps us do so. Thank you.

ScentScelf said...

Thanks for saying so. I think this is fascinating, actually, as this struggle operates on various levels of meaning and cognitive operations.

I should have noted that I favor the metaphor most of all, as a means of expression, but that as an art form, I lean toward things which have dimension but proceed over time. But I'll be coming back at this, from a few angles, using the blog as an assembly and rough cut, as it were, for ideas.

I also am interested in what the current era of communication brings to this...look at you and me, for example. In days of yore, it would have had to have been profession, professional training, or a lucky pub to bring us together. And the ability to hang out in one place for one extended period of time to work out thoughts in correspondence. But here the thoughts zip across the intertubes...

Ah, the next angle, methinks. :)

Nancy said...

Let me dare to provoke: Do we need to consider whether the perfumer intended her creation to function as a work of art? Are all perfumes works of art? Or, are we developing a vocabulary to describe our sensory impressions independent of whether these impressions are stimulated by an art form? Would we use artistic metaphors even if perfume weren't itself an art form? If perfume is not an art form, is it analogous to one, with our descriptive language thereby being a metaphor of an analogy?

ScentScelf said...

Hooray! Provoked, prodded, and the better for it. :)

Intent, important consideration. (Bops head for not tossing it up there with reception.) Must toss that into the ruminations basket. For some reason, my mind first went to "outsider/naive art," which is a bit difficult to apply here, considering corporate creations are far from naive, and independent perfumers are...well, now wait a minute; something *is* brewing here. Because independent doesn't mean "intends to make art," naturally. (Though Tauer clearly places himself in that camp, so intention is present there.)

Are they all? Ah. How do we decide? (Again, paradigms of intent, reception, creation...should they be applied?) Must it be all or nothing? I suspect that last question is rhetorical for us, here, as we accept that not every application of paint to surface is "art." Another category for inidividual rumination.

And then, you get to the questions which really get me. Is this all an exercise merely to develop an expressive vocabulary? Might it be more appropriate to create another system, a la sign language? Who would bother to learn it even if that were appropriate? Does the use of artistic metaphor suggest the presence of art, or just a form of metaphor?

What is a thing that is analogous to an art form, but not one? (Ooh, that sounds like an ancient riddle, or the question you have to answer at an important gate.) Is it "craft"? Something else, but quantifiable (and therefore eventually label-able?)?

I certainly hope you continue your daring ways, Nancy; they help me when I, as Pooh says, "have a think."

BitterGrace said...

A terrific, thought-provoking post! I have not read AT's remarks about immersive sculpture--he will be my next Internet stop--but my first response is to object to the theory that perfume is a form the wearer inhabits. That runs completely counter to my own experience of perfume. I understand why a perfumer would think of it that way, but I believe that a perfume is not fully "birthed" until it meets my skin and joins my body. Until that happens, it's just a scent, like the gazillion other scents that surround us, both natural and manmade. Therein lies the subtle difference between the art of perfumery (assuming there is one) and arts like music and painting.

Of course, sound enters our bodies, light carries visual images into the eye, etc.--but that's a difference of degree, if not kind, with what happens between us and our perfumes. We consume perfume the way we consume, say, a fine wine. We take it into ourselves, and in doing so, achieve the final step in its creation. I think it's telling that oenophiles fall into the same linguistic traps as perfume lovers--i.e., purple prose, a reliance on metaphor, etc.)

Nancy said...

BG, I had actually been thinking about the issue you raise: that scent involves interaction with the human body. That caused me to wonder whether "perfume as an art form" bears any resemblance to participatory performance art, in which the audience/public interacts with the artist/art as a necessary element of the artwork. But I don't think the analogy holds up. In performance art, there is an act of will that doesn't exist with perfume. The outcome depends on mood, hormones, the weather. So that brought me around to sculpture again, but this time environmental sculpture in which outcomes are subject to chance. This in turn made me wonder whether I'm just full of bs because I'm reading too much art theory. Time to go have another glass of wine.

ScentScelf said...

Ah, refining reception. Interacting rather than simply beholding. Chemistry, not just movement.

I'm going to add one more thing to your equation. With wine, we take it in, and it is done. With perfume, we inhale it, we absorb it...but we release it back to the world. In a way, I'd take this back to the musician's role in music...composer creates, musician is the vessel. It's not exact, but I'm thinking out loud. Again. ;)

Nancy, I wondered about performance art, too. You are right to bring up intentionality on the part of the artist...even if they swear up and down that they lay all meaning and interpretation in the hands of the viewer, they still make choices in terms of what/how they present. Which a perfume can't. And even a perfumer can only approximate, given the issues of skin chemistry/meteorology/context we've discussed.

I'm sorry I missed both comments yesterday. Because I think I would have joined you in that glass of wine. :)

ScentScelf said...

Aw, shucks. BG, I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed not only your contribution to our discussion, but how much I enjoy going to your blog.

indieperfumes said...

Very interesting discussion. I have been reading some older things that dwell on fragrance lately, such as Wilde and Huysmans and even other late 19th cent. fiction, such as by Dumas fils, and I notice that the scent descriptions are similar to an intoxication experience. They remind me of someone drinking fine wines, combined with the nuances of color & sensuality of fine workmanship. Many allusions to legendary or idealized historical times, such as the Renaissance or the Middle Ages, as seen through the prism of their arts, & seem to make scents more precious. The sense of luxury and luxurious experiences. I think our modern sensibility much prefers a clearer connection and association to nature and wholesomeness. Nature is the ultimate luxury experience nowadays, since there is so little unspoiled nature left, and scents connect to the essences of nature. A sense of aliveness, and liveliness, more than luxury. Also place, so many modern perfumes are themed on an (exotic) culture and location, many of which are on the brink of homogenization into global culture (L'Artisan). Scent as a gathering of the essence of travel and exotic experiences.

ScentScelf said...

Mmm, and how interesting also, the impressions you are gathering from these older fiction accounts. I wonder if the intoxification angle is inherently woven with the context of the time, by which I am thinking of things Romantic.

You could maybe make the same observation in our time--vis a vis the "clearer connection" you mention, but rather than focus on thing relating to Nature, veer off into the realm of modern psychology. I am thinking of accounts of scent experience that bring in synaesthesia and other stimulus/response positioned discussion. *Everything* scent is stimulus/response, natch, but I mean "scientific" or "cognitive" approaches, some of which veer romantic, some clinical, but all needing that grounding.

I'm going to digress a moment myself, having just read the NYT article summarizing the concept of Singularity (sci fi and more), wherein machines take over our experience. Nature as we know it takes on all sorts of connotations there--but will it be natural?

Your bringing in the idea of the "exotic" connects well with thoughts I know Bonne Vivante up there has been rumbling about. She recently addressed the concept of "Oriental" as presented in art and specifically perfume. L'Artisan is an interesting case, isn't it, as it brings "outside culture" into its line, yet the line itself is positioned somewhat outside the mainstream culture of perfume. The gathering of experience...oh, now I have another full concept to guide me as I chart a course and let the burrs of related ideas gather on my clothing.

(Had to make that a nature metaphor, but of course. ;) )

Glad you joined in.

indieperfumes said...

A most lovely metaphor it is...
I must get to that NYT article.
Yes, the psychology angle has changed everything, and of course the romantic is all about that derangement of the senses of Rimbaud and others, damn the torpedoes. I think we live with much much more stress than our historical brothers and sisters of the Romantic era (at least everybody says so) and perhaps we are all suffering from ADD these days. The calm of pleasant aspects of what is truly redolent of nature may be our most ultimate luxurious experience, and we know that the sense of smell connects to nature like nothing else. Indeed, so much to think about. Thank you for bringing these topics to the fore for us. We are the crowd that cares about these things, after all...

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Rose said...

yes you are right- and I like what Andy says about it. I think the thing about perfume is it's perhaps quite newly thought of as art so language hasn't developed. it's also so subjective- well all art is but nowadays everyone says they like Van Gogh whether they do or not and the only perfume that is really true of is No 5- and that is a total mystery to me!

ScentScelf said...


No. 5 is kind of one of those scents that -- mythology? marketing? combination? -- have become a sort of emperor's clothes. People feel obligated to like it, or keep their feelings on the down low.

Though I notice among more heavy-duty perfume folk, Mitsouko is being tentatively identified by some as a "don't like," even while it has earned a Great Perfume medal.

This of course goes to the issue of being able to identify something as formally well-done, without having to personally like it. Bothering to do so in itself means it's a something worth paying attention to; defining the rubric by which you do so is an indication of an elevation of the subject in itself. (Why would you bother unless it wasn't worthy?)

BTW, I do remember you discussing Van Gogh a while back after you had gone to an exhibit. That experience of being moved emotionally is kind of a complement to the objective evaluation rubric, isn't it? Which maybe is why we question when we don't "like" a perfume? Maybe because, as a commodity, we buy it because we like it, the desire to experience it in a pleasurable way becomes more important.

Of course, not all artists whose works are currently recognized as valuable/worthy/talented/well done were initially seen that way. ;)

Good to see you back.