The Center of Olfactory Art, a newly christened division of New York's Museum of Arts and Design, is, apparently, about rooting around for new ways of evaluating and imagining many of the perfumes we have seen simply as an extension of the companies for whom they were manufactured. In fact, COA might be said primarily to be about expanding the vocabulary we use to discuss perfume. While many of us who love fragrance are quite accustomed to calling one a creation rather than simply a commodity or someone like Picasso an artist rather than simply a painter or a sculptor, when the public at large thinks about a perfume, the framing device is generally Gucci or Donna Karan or Jessica Simpson.
At one point, Burr's Times interviewer asked why the museum, as others before it have, wouldn't be presenting the bottles in which these perfumes were contained as part of its curatorial advancement of perfume as art form. Burr responded:
"Perfume is not the bottle; it’s the perfumer. We’re going to be purist about that. It’s about the olfactory artist, not the company. It’s not Issey Miyake’s L’Eau d’Issey — which is an ingenious perfume, by the way — it’s Jacques Cavallier’s. It’s not Robert Piguet’s Fracas, it’s Germaine Cellier’s. Her construction of Fracas was the first great Brutalist work of art."
The response from various bloggers to this comment particularly has been fascinating to me. "Chandler Burr gives excellent sound bytes," commented one, with barely disguised condescension. She's all for situating perfumers within the artistic movements of their times, she continued, but the practice has its limits, because "...unless you can do a parallel demonstration on olfactory and visual forms, slapping the label of an artistic movement on a perfume doesn’t go very far into shedding any light on it."
With such backhanded compliments and meticulously trivializing word choice (i.e. slapping, as if what he does, in comparison to what she does, is careless, undisciplined, even lazy or inept) her post, which seemed to amount to a dismissal of Burr as any kind of last word on how to discuss perfume, reminded me of an email I was once forwarded: when Burr sent out a press release for the Center of Olfactory Art, in which he mentioned that part of his agenda for the institution was "to organize talks with perfumers who will lead interactive lectures in which participants will learn about various raw materials that constitute fragrances, such as Ugandan vanilla, Peruvian pink peppercorn, Laotian benzoin, and Rwandan geranium," another blogger, who'd been cc'ed, responded:
"Thank your for the final press release. I did not really understood (sic) what was the purpose of the first one. It sounds like alien raw materials. I've never heard a perfumer speaking about Rwandan things. Where do you pick them to sound so exotic? You are certainly a marketing genius. And please, do not do repeat the exotic chemical names that no one uses in the industry. Art doesn't mean words that are not used/understood."
I laughed out loud, as did everyone I shared it with, because it was like something out of a Christopher Guest parody. You could practically hear the prissy indignation, the scathing "that's you told" shrillness of the thing. Best of all, the remark "Art doesn't mean words that are not used/understood" is in some profound way the ultimate argument against itself, particularly in the context of a response which is pretty grammatically shaky overall--just as the opening statement "Chandler Burr gives excellent sound bytes" is pretty firmly under the sway of a good sound byte itself.
Of course, what both of these responses make abundantly transparent is that, regardless what they think of him as a person, when people criticize Burr it sometimes has to do in large part with their resentment of his culturally sanctioned "authority". What's at stake is who gets to be the most respected, most publicized, most recognizable "commentator" on perfume and how we perceive and discuss it. The aim seems often to be to discredit Burr in some way. I think back also to Avery Gilbert's rather scathing and frequent "Burr-o-Meter" on First Nerve, the author's blog, where Gilbert, who could easily be argued to feel some degree of professional competition with Burr, essentially counted the ways Burr had exercised pretension, sycophancy, and inaccuracy in his most recently published comments about perfume, the overall effect of which seemed to imply that Burr was just kind of a poser, and felt, however unintentionally, vaguely homophobic to me.
There is no official language for perfume, and if it were as precious as some of these people claim, as threatened by the possibly hazardous toxins of misinformation and hyperbole as they suggest, we wouldn't be discussing it at all, because we are enthusiasts, which means that however scientifically we break down its ingredients we just as frequently discuss it in terms which are in some part emotional, figurative and fraught with specious comparisons for which we don't generally bother to fault each other or ourselves, unless our sense of self-importance is jeopardized.
Calling a perfume a Brutalist work doesn't seem any more preposterous or pretentious to me than saying that a perfume is best described as "muguet goes to the beach", nor any more or less apt a comparison to make. Further, when it comes to "muguet" and "beaches", I think I might require a comparative analysis of these olfactory and visual or metaphorical forms. Am I to believe that muguet puts on sandals, some sunscreen, picks up a pail, and heads off for the shoreline? Is muguet a sentient being? I guess I'm confused. Furthermore, how is it possible, really, that "the sweet and innocent lily of the valley" in a fragrance "takes on the aristocratic swagger of a chypre?" How is it possible for a perfume to have swagger, let alone an aristocratic one? These things were written by the same blogger I mentioned above ("Burr gives excellent sound bytes") and I didn't have to search very far back to find them. They appeared in a review which immediately preceded her criticism of Burr's fanciful language.
And yet, to the blogger's credit, when I read that kind of a description, I immediately apprehend the gist of what she's saying. Because I'm not a total idiot. And neither are most people, including, perhaps, you.
I don't want to single anyone out, because we all do this, and frankly this is why most of us read these blogs as frequently as we do, to see how someone is expanding our concept of what fragrance is, can evoke, or might do. We're interested in new associative links, maybe. We read these bloggers because they're good writers and have an interesting, even provocative point of view. I think most of us enjoy bold associations, and are apt to use them pretty liberally. I'm not sure any of us are immune from the overblown self-importance of our egos when it comes to making our little "definitive" statements on a fragrance.
There's often quite a bit of argument among art scholars about just exactly what does and does not fall within a specific school of art--like, say, Precisionism. Let's set aside the fact that when someone first coined the term Precisionism there must have been quite a few people who decried it as having no verifiable relation to the artists and the art it was said to classify. Any adjective has the potential to be distorting or pretentiously exalting of one thing while diminishing of others. What ultimately made a painting a precisionist painting--other than the conceptual will that it be so?
As Wikipedia points out: " Georgia O'Keeffe, especially with paintings like New York Night, 1928-29, remained connected to Precisionist ideals until the 1960s, although her best-known works are not closely related to Precisionism, and it would be inaccurate to state that O'Keeffe was entirely aligned with Precisionism." Pretty subjective, liquid stuff. And yet, when I see a painting now, by O'Keefe, Stella, or Demuth, which is said to reflect some of the qualities of Precisionism, I have another way to approach them and evaluate them, in addition to what they do for me personally, emotionally, or viscerally.
Is it any more ridiculous or specious to say that the use of tuberose reflects a Brutalist aesthetic than it is to suggest that a certain kind of perfume is aristocratic? I say nah. And if we're going to start picking apart the language being used, we've got a lot of blog archives to weed through in the weeks ahead.
The above image is a classic Precisionist painting by Charles Demuth called Figure 5 in Gold. It was created in 1928, seven years after Chanel released "her" No.5 fragrance. Demuth says the painting was inspired by a Wiliam Carlos William poem involving the passing of a red fire engine, engine no.5. It's interesting to consider how it might also have been unconsciously influenced by the then pervasive and already iconic perfume, and to explore how its design might have reflected that other famous work of art in some way, just as precisionism related to Cubism. I'd venture to say it's probably a pretty harmless pursuit as well. Don't hate me, too too much, for thinking of it first, or for believing I have.
[By the way, I'm told that during a speech he made at a conference on fragrance sometime in the not so distant past, Burr indicated that bloggers are getting it all wrong; that talking about the "notes" in a perfume is the least interesting way to write about one. I suppose in some way he has set himself up for the derision. However, it's interesting to me that the people who take most offense with his every word are as apt to place themselves above their fellow bloggers in some way which sanctions his potentially hierarchical distinctions rather than refute them, supporting his (alleged) implication that some of us are more important than others.]