Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What Becomes a B-r-r-r-r-utalist Most?

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Center of Olfactory Art curator and author Chandler Burr argued for the official re-appraisal of perfume as an art form, making the case, essentially, that a perfumer is an artist and should be regarded as one, and that when we discuss perfume we might consider it within a context wider than the commercial arena within which it has typically been consigned by its marketers and corporate reasons-for-being.

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.]


Olfacta said...

The day all of us are required to start using a variant of art-speak in describing fragrance to be "taken seriously" (and by who?) is the day I go away. If there is a sillier, more exclusionary, more language-butchering way of writing about anything,I don't know what it is. As for professional jealousy, it's ugly but, unfortunately, seems to be inevitable, assuming that there is a profession involved (as opposed to a hobby, which is what this is, folks). No one is paying us to do this, which makes "professional" jealousy, um, even more ridiculous and sort of sad, really.

As for notes, I think they're really a consumer thing. If I'm buying a perfume, I'd like to know whether it's based on jasmine or leather. The fact that it's probably hedione or IBQ means nothing to anyone but one of us professional perfume, um, whatever we are.

Brian said...

Amen and Hallayloo.

RM said...

Ok, I promised myself last time I would stay out of these things but I strongly support your view on this topic.
Why is it ok for one individual to make links between perfume and art or place perfume within an imagined or actual historical/cultural context but not another? What is this individual saying? That's it's ok for ME but not for YOU? Are they more qualified to make these pronouncements or is their point of view more relevant than Burr's? And even in you thought you were more qualified, would you really want to point it out?
But in saying this Brian, this blogger clearly disagreed with Burr's statement regarding brutalist perfumes and exercised her free speech through her blog to communicate this point. You kind of have to admit that you often do the same and that's great, that's why we all read!
So I guess my question is, do you feel it's wrong when somebody else does it? (I'm not sure that I'm framing this question correctly and fear that it's coming off all wrong so please forgive any perceived snippiness and know I mean no offense!)

Brian said...

No worries, RM.

I think anyone should say whatever he or she likes on his or her blog, while we still can.

To me it's all pretty transparent and I'm surprised people aren't more embarrassed about knocking Burr for doing essentially what we all do every day on our blogs. Listen, there ain't that many ways to describe perfume. You make comparisons--to art, to the beach, to your grandmother. You create a story, using whatever tools and links are at your disposal. This is an enthusiasm-driven pursuit, and though science is clearly involved in perfumery, the effects and impressions are all subjective.

Said bloggers did exercise their free speech. Now I'm exercising mine. And to me, what this seems to be about is a competition for "Most Important Person Currently Speaking About Perfume (The Right Way)."

Cue yawning.

I mean, let's face it, if we need to stick to strict comparative analyses (charts, graphs, columns, chemical compounds) when discussing perfume, we are all in trouble--because there's no other way to talk about it and it's hard to keep people's attention when they've fallen asleep.

RM said...

I'm hearing ya!
BUT what if I was to say it like this;
You strike me as the type of person who would be the first person to call someone out for spinning shit. So, if another blogger decides to do the same, in this case argue the idea of what constitutes a 'brutalist' perfume because said blogger believes Burr is spinning his own brand of shit and maybe he shouldn't make unfounded pronouncements which, coming from an alleged expert in the field, could be construed as fact.
Is the point I'm trying to make here making sense? Because somehow I don't think so! I think I'm playing the devil's advocate here because I had the exact same feelings as you after reading her post. But now after reading your post, and fundamentally agreeing, I thought to myself, 'hang on, doesn't Brian call people out too? Maybe she's just doing same, and is it fair for me to say, yep, it's OK when Brian does it but when somebody ELSE does it...'

Brian said...

Yes, I totally get your point.

I'm not saying anyone else hasn't a right to their opinions. I feel like we often have this conversation, right? You and I. Like a dog with a bone you wonder whether I might possibly be a dog with a bone. I say this with love; all bark, no bite.

I don't think she's really calling him out. I think she's saying there is a right way to talk about perfume, and his is the wrong way, even though they're both essentially speaking the same language with slightly different verbs.

And what I'm doing is saying I think it's perfectly legitimate to talk about perfume by referencing art forms, and wondering who died and made the people who say it isn't Queen and King. That's a little different from saying she has no right to her opinion. And I'm not sure saying someone has a right to his or her opinion means abstaining from examining that opinion, especially when it's dogmatic.

Trust me, I'd like people with silly opinions to blabber on as much as possible. It's highly entertaining. I would never dream of telling the Marx Brothers to sit quietly with their hands in their laps.

Brian said...

Though they would be FAR more thrilling sitting still than most of the people I can think of when flailing all about.

Anonymous said...

I, too, had made a pact with myself to move away from this kind of discussion... but Brian.. you just keep pullllling me back in. ;-)

Chandler Burr adds flourishes to all his writing. When reading The Perfect Scent, I kept tripping over the adjectives because, for the most part, they added unnecessary description. One example was when he described the lettuce that the woman he was lunching was eating as Bibb lettuce. Who cares? Bibb, Boston or otherwise.

The whole perfume vocabulary thing is self-referential. Until Angel came along, describing a gourmand wasn't easy. Now when I say (to a perfumista)... "It's Angel with a twist lemon", it seems workable to me (as long as you know what Angel smells like).

As for "muguet goes to the beach", I got it right away.

And as for Gilbert Avery's criticism being homophobic... that doesn't ring true. How is criticizing Chandler Burr's writing style homophobic? Brian, I agree with most of what you say but this is overreaching.

Brian said...

Nah, I'm not pulling you in. It's just as valid to discuss the dismissal of Burr's analogy or approach as it is to dismiss the approach in the first place. I wouldn't have known about Burr's interview and what people are saying about it had these posts not appeared in my feed, so I'm not sure I'm starting anything.

I don't find Burr any more fanciful or prone to exaggeration or simplification than Turin or anyone else writing about perfume. I didn't say muguet at the beach was a lousy way of describing a perfume. I said it was no less fanciful and no more preposterously a stretch than saying Fracas is a Brutalist perfume. They are both evocative simplifications. Why is one a publicity hungry sound byte and the other is an interesting turn of phrase?

I understood exactly what Burr meant. And I'm curious why he must present a graph or a comparative analysis but someone else can say a bottle of liquid is lily on the beach--a pretty fantastic and self consciously catchy oversimplification--and the reader who doesn't 'see it' is simply stupid dense or combative? My point is that we are all doing the same thing.

My impression of Gilbert's Burr-o-meter was that while taking pains to show how male and all American and just plain average Joe he was, as if those qualities were more virtuosic--he contrasted this against what struck me as a rather effete characterization of Burr. You might not have gotten that. To say my impression is overreaching simply because it wasn't the one you got is a bit like saying that someone who sees Fracas as a Brutalist work of art is pretentious and annoying because the analogy is lost on you.

I'm not trying to be argumentative--I don't even know Burr; for all I know he's insufferable-- but I'm sorry, if you have a right to say that someone is a nuisance in a somewhat public forum it's probably permissable for me to be sarcastic too.

RM said...

"Like a dog with a bone you wonder whether I might possibly be a dog with a bone." - I love that line, probably because it's so true!
And yes, I do see the difference. Oh and I took a look
at that Avery Gilbert site and also have to admit I must have missed those references you mentioned but perhaps I didn't read all the posts that related to Burr.
But with those I did read, I was mostly a bit taken aback by the comments from readers - gee, why all the Burr hate?

Brian said...

Yeah I guess I feel the same way. What's the issue there? My friend Jack says he loves how boring people use Luca Turin's praise of Secretions Magnifiques to cancel out everything he's ever said.

There's this weird backlash against Burr I find sort of fascinating.

Olfacta said...

I think Burr is enthusiastic and effusive and not afraid to be a Fan, and that makes some people uncomfortable. I've met him and found him to be a nice guy. He freely admit that his education really prepared him to work in banking or something like that, and that he never dreamed he'd end up doing what he does. Maybe that's why; it sort of fell in his lap, whereas others started out doggedly determined to work in the industry. He's nice-looking and charming and that never hurts. A convenient target for all kinds of resentments and jealousies, imho, which is a shame.

Lucy said...

I think he's talking about it in art historical terms because he wants to frame perfume that way to include it in an art historical context. Which justifies puting it in a museum, and justifies opening a department for it that he does now run, which gives you a lot of mojo in the NYC art world and perfume world both, for what that's worth (maybe a lot these days). Saying a perfume is Brutalist includes it in that art speak which is the language environment of art museums.
About the No. 5 painting, I will speak about that to you personally sometime, but anyway...
I do recall an event at the New School where CB was in the role of MC and made instant pronouncements on whether the participant perfumers were on the right track or not, so I can imagine there might be some resentment. The creative person is the vulnerable one, fully open to criticism of the work, so let it be a bit more of a two way street, critique of the critics can't hurt either. These were professionals with training and decades of experience in making perfume, and so if he was dismissive it would not wear well, especially as this happened on stage, in front of an audience of many people from IFF, and other perfume related career people. We know that being a columnist for the NYT gives legitimacy to personal opinion as a critic, but as others have said, he schooled himself, as we all have, and it's simply more or less just the way it worked out, writing and publishing, and media attention wise, that he is the authority and curator. I am very curious to see what he makes of it, that's the main thing. More attention to perfume other than mainstream is all to the good as far as I am concerned.

Brian said...

Thanks, Lucy. I hadn't heard any of this. I wish I think that rather than dismiss his ideas out of hand people were willing, like you have, to say what the real beef is. Of course it's laughable to imagine that burr knows more about perfume than perfumers. Truth be told, it's just as laughable that a blogger would presume the same, and I sometimes feel those are the stake: who knows more about perfume. I guess ultimately I don't give a crap. I'm hear to smell it and enjoy it and to relate it to personal experience.

Alexander Greene said...

you have a lot to say which is good, but why not openly criticize Grain de Musc? Blogging is a conversation after all. Link to her post, open up the debate!

Criticism of the art of perfumery needs to find its own vocabulary and not borrow it painting or sculpture or even cookery. I think the point Denyse was trying to make was quite straight-forward: brutal, yes, Brutalist, no.

Perfumery needs criticism but shouldn't become a vipers' nest of politics.

Brian said...

Hi Alexander,

Thanks for commenting.

I think I'm pretty openly saying what I think--and my point was quite straightforward as well.

I disagree with you and Denyse and feel that it's a rather bizarre line of argument to suggest that relating perfume to art movements or art works is any more specious than comparing or relating it to any of the other things, fields, emotions, or movements to which it's commonly, even routinely, related.

Writers have written about books and other art forms for decades the way Burr is talking about perfume. It's a perfectly viable framework for conceptualizing what a perfume does or how it can be perceived. And in fact each one of us does it every day as we talk about fragrance--without scrutiny. Saying that perfume "needs to find its own vocabulary" is asking to isolate it into some precious realm of discourse which is to my mind as fecund with false absolutes as calling Fracas a Brutalist perfume. I see more than a little hypocrisy and snobbery in the assertion that what Burr is doing is somehow different from what the rest of us do as a matter of course. And the idea that by situating Fracas conceptually within the Brutalist movement will somehow muddy the waters of perfume discourse is a little ridiculous to me.

I'm not sure how I should phrase my disagreement differently--or why it's any more viperous for me to express it than it might be for Denyse or any other blogger. There are many people blogging about perfume who agree to agree on things. Most of the people reading these blogs seem pretty sophisticated and intelligent to me. I think they can handle a critical opinion which begs to differ.

Our blogroll offers a good diversity of thought on perfume, and the opportunity to explore opinions we don't necessarily agree with and viewpoints which don't necessarily think we're the bees knees. God knows I have my detractors. And God love them.

Alexander Greene said...

Hi Brian,
I think my point was lost- for which I apologise. You write well about perfume, so does Denyse. Far better than I could.

I believe if any blogger is to comment on another's post, it is better to refer to it directly (with a link, perhaps) lest your post a) be construed as an attack on the person in question rather than her ideas, or b) perhaps more importantly, leave behind some of your readership.

It reminds me of the school playground- and I think your criticism is more valuable than that.

Like it or not, Chandler Burr has become a perfume Critic with a capital C- and as such he needs to be able to justify his remarks more and Denyse was prepared to hold him so account in her own way.

Do you think there are schools of perfumery like in the other arts? I am not so sure that direct comparisons holds true. Is there a canon of perfumes? Is there something distinct in the creative process in perfumery that makes it far more difficult for us to map out schools. Apprenticeships are common in perfumery, secrets are passed from one perfumer to another- this is perhaps more similar to renaissance art than to the contemporary/20th Century scene.

As I write this I am looking out at the Trellick Tower in London- which wikipedia refers to as a Brutalist building- smelling Fracas... I just don't see it.

Perhaps we should invite Chandler Burr to justify it...

This certainly doesn't mean that any other form of commentary is of a lesser value...

I must stop.

Brian said...

Hi Alexander,

Your point wasn't lost on me. I think I just don't agree with it.

It's my sincerest hope not to lose readers, but if I must lose them, I can only hope it's the kind of reader who can't tolerate a strong, irreverent opinion and a sense of humor. I'm afraid that relationship would be doomed from the start anyway, so it's best I disappoint them now.

Denyse was one of several people to respond negatively to Burr's analogy. I think the reasons for not "openly criticizing" her are obvious. It could well feel like a personal attack to Denyse, but I'm not sure her criticism of Burr wouldn't feel the same to him. I've often remarked on opinions I disagree with, and generally figure the comments in question are easy enough to google. I'm not suffering under the delusion that no one will link on their own to my references.

I didn't, you might have noticed, link to the interview in question with Burr or to Avery Gilbert's Burr-o-Meter. I didn't quote from the other posts I read on the Burr statement because they seemed pretty similar in theory and tone to Denyse's.

I often make the probably mistaken assumption that people who read me read most of the other blogs and know what I'm talking about. You seem to bear that theory out. Frankly, most people who are not perpetual blog readers will skim right by this post whether the references are listed or not--because they generally don't give a hoot about chemical components, industry intrigue, or blogger personalities, including mine. They just want to know what people are saying about Gucci Guilty, I find.

Back in the day, I played quite well on the playground, until it came to those who would have had you believe there's only one way down a slide.

Let's end the discussion, though, if you don't mind. I've got more sand in my pants than I want to sit on.

Barbara said...

I come to this discussion late, and perhaps with a tangential point, but I almost positive it was Luca Turin who described Germaine Cellier's perfume compositions in the "Brutalist" school. I loved it because Vent Vert, Fracas, and Bandit all do have something brutal about them, and she wasn't afraid of overdosing extreme notes — galbanum, isobutyl quinoline, whatever. So more than anything, my question is: is Chandler quoting Turin, in which case shouldn't folks be ragging on Turin?