Nosing Out the Meaning of Scent
This Cypriot terracotta, of a man smelling a fruit, was made in about 500 B.C., and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m not only showing it for its own sake, as a prototype Cyrano, but as an example of how much olfaction once mattered to us human beings, despite the short shrift our noses get now – except of course in a “live” perfume show called “The Art of Scent”, at the Museum of Art and Design for a few more weeks still.
I’ve written about the exhibition more than once, but I’m hitting it again because my thoughts in an earlier Daily Pic have now sparked some response from the show's curator, Chandler Burr, to which I’ve replied. Some smell-y readers might want to follow our ongoing dialogue.
Our first interchange is below:
Thrilled you wrote the Jan. 20 piece, and (of course) thrilled at this: “…turns out to be one of the most stimulating exhibitions in New York in recent times.” God knows everything you write is correct.
Well—except, for example, regarding this: “…trying to draw parallels between realism and abstraction in painting and the same ideas in perfume doesn’t elevate the smells to art; it leaves them seeming subservient to the older, better-known discipline.”
Here’s the problem: It’s exceptionalism. And unless I’ve missed it—and I may have—you’ve never justified it.
What you wrote means, and tell me if you think I’ve got this wrong: We can apply art historical vocabulary to a vast number of mediums—paint, music, etc.—but not to scent. This is the only medium to which we cannot apply this vocabulary. Why? No reason given except your feeling that it is so.
Because empirically it’s clear: scent is a medium made of raw materials that are used by artists to create works with aesthetic effect. Like all artistic mediums. So how does “’The Art of Scent’… prove that scent is an art form with its own unique rules and dynamics”?
You write, “Scents can be discussed, I feel sure, as though humans had only ever known the world through their noses,” but what does this mean exacty? And if it’s true, then why isn’t it that painting can only be discussed as though humans had only ever known the world through their eyes?
Why does “[t]here seem… to be so very much left to say in figuring out this art form on its own terms”? What does it mean “to figure out an art form on its own terms”? Take painting. What would it mean to “figure out painting on its own terms”? Or dance?
You posit that talking about the aesthetics of scent in traditional aesthetic terms makes scent subservient to other disciplines. How exactly? And why? Again the assertion is in theory plausible but, well, tell us where it comes from.
Sculpture is an artistic medium for the sense of sight and, if you own the piece, touch. Music for the sense of hearing. Architecture for touch, sight, and hearing. Film for sight and hearing. Scent for the sense of smell. I don’t see why we should—indeed, how we can—divide smell from the other senses and exclude works created in scent materials from the aesthetic discussion.
Sleepily yours (11:37pm, my older kid can now stay up way later than I can and is blabbing away animatedly with my husband, who is enabling him not to go to sleep),
Hey Chandler – What a pleasure to come to grips (and then to blows, if need be) with (and over) a whole new, underdeveloped field in the arts. You’ve raised some great points in your response to my last piece on your show, but here’s where I think the problem lies: I’m not saying that it’s wrong to use the vocabulary of fine art to talk about scent or perfume; I’m just saying that, oftentimes, that vocabulary was developed for dealing with sets of issues particular to the fine arts (as once understood, narrowly), in particular historical contexts. Not every area of human endeavor is going to have the same preoccupations, at the same time, so transferring language from one to another can be tricky: Does it make sense to talk about “Romantic” advances in steam engineering, because they happen to occur at the same time as Romantic movements in poetry, painting or music. (I know, I know: Some PhD, somewhere, has no doubt argued at length that it does). It strikes me that you can be accused of forcing your readings when you talk about a perfume like Jicky as Capital-R Romantic, just because it falls at the tail-end of the Romantic period in some others arts, or when you see Abstract Expressionism as the right frame of reference for discussing a perfume that happens to have arrived in the era of Jackson Pollock. And if your periodizing readings seem stretched, it can seem – certainly will seem – as though you are borrowing the fine-art terminology for the prestige and “serieux” it lends to perfume, rather than for any critical dividends it pays. That is, borrowing ill-fitting terminology from art history can make it seem as though the world of perfume is too insecure to develop terms and contexts of its own. Almost any work of art, in any medium (even scent) can be made to fit almost any of art history’s period categories, if you shoehorn hard enough – but the question remains, does the shoe fit?
Or actually, there’s a much more pressing (and, I’m afraid, crueler) question and issue involved: That the very categories you want to “borrow” from art history no longer have much currency among art historians. Many, many scholars – and some critics, like me – reject the idea that sorting works of art into “movements” is of much use, or captures the truth of history. Smart art history and criticism should be much more granular (and innovative) than that, paying attention to particular, local contexts of use and reception and interpretation, rather than to grand notions of period or ethnic or cultural styles. I’m afraid (sorry) that some of the terms and ideas you want to borrow from art history – even ideas of an “aesthetic effect” or of “style” and “movement” — come closer to being old cliches than living thought. When I suggested that scent should be discussed “as though humans had only ever known the world through their noses”, it was meant as an invitation for your medium to strike out against such cliches, and develop ways of thinking unique to it – and which art history might even want to borrow, in turn. Does olfactory art gain, or lose, by relying on interpretative categories and strategies that already exist in other disciplines, and may even be stale there?
As you know, and as I’ve written, I think there’s as much to say and think and feel about scent as about any of the longer-established disciplines such as painting or sculpture or “classical” music. In fact, so little work has been done on scent that there’s more room to move in the field, and more paths to strike out on. I categorically reject any sense that olfactory art is “lower”, in any way, or less worthy of the most serious discourse, than older art forms. I’m just not sure that scent gains by borrowing their frame of reference.
Yours, of a morning and all unperfumed,
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