I spend a good bit of time in What the Nose Knows examining the nature of olfactory genius—the ways in which artists, poets, writers, and musicians succeed in weaving scent into their creative works of art. So I was intrigued to find that philosopher Denis Dutton had tackled the sense of smell in his new book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.Dutton teaches the philosophy of art and is the founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily. Somewhat unexpectedly given this background his book is a serious attempt to explain the human capacity and compulsion to create art on the basis of Darwinian evolution.
I won’t go into the outlines of his overall argument here. (Links to many reviews of the book can be found here.) My goal isn’t to evaluate how well Dutton makes the Darwinian case for an art instinct. Instead I want to examine the few pages he devotes to the sense of smell as a basis for potential art forms (he goes on to treat sound in a similar way but with a much more favorable conclusion).
Dutton notes that olfactory art is far less developed than what he calls the big three—visual arts, language arts, and music/dance. He then tees off on a frequently offered reason for this lack of development, namely that there is a prejudice against smell “that keeps us from taking it seriously as an art form.” How is this possible, he asks, when perfume is a highly sought-after product and when the spices and flavors of particular cuisines are the subject of endless discussion and innovation? So what if the ancient philosophers ranked smell as one of the “lower” senses? Aristotle’s opinion doesn’t carry much weight with fans of Britney Spears Curious.
I’m with Dutton on this one. Philosophers have droned on for centuries about the relative rank of the senses and I thought I’d have to include it in my book. But after struggling to find an plausible scientific or cultural angle I said to hell with it.
Dutton next demolishes the excuse that olfactory art gets no respect because the sense of smell is non-cognitive and therefore not easily made the subject of “serious” theories of art. I was ready to stand up and start cheering when I read this because it’s a favorite theme of mine. Contrary to conventional wisdom, especially among psychologists who should know better, olfaction is very cognitive. It requires attention, memory, comparison, naming, and judgment. There is, after all, a thinking brain behind the smelling nose.
Dutton needlessly concedes that the human sense of smell is less sensitive than that of animals; here he’s simply not up to date on recent findings of human/animal parity in odor detection.
As for the positive case why smell is inherently unsuitable for artistic purposes, Dutton lets the philosopher Monroe Beardsley carry the ball:
[Beardsley] claims that the fundamental problem with smells as an artistic medium is that, unlike musical tones, they cannot be ordered by “intrinsic relations” among themselves. With musical pitches, one note is always higher or lower than another, they stand in scales with octaves, and they can be arranged in serial order with regard to loudness or duration. Smell defies any such rational arrangement.Beardsley goes on to imagine the difficulties in designing a scent organ for playing smells like music. How would one arrange the keyboard? How would one compose smell-music when there is no order or definition to the aesthetic elements (scent notes) one has to work with?
This, and not the view that smell and taste are “lower senses” compared with sight and hearing, seems to explain the absence of taste-symphonies and smell-sonatas.Dutton gives full credit to the creative genius of perfumers and chefs. He notes the universal pleasure we take in well-designed fragrances and dishes. Yet, he says,
few are willing to class the best culinary or oenological experiences alongside the Iliad or Guernica—even if experiences of meals or fine wine are some of the most prized and pleasurable moments life can offer.Why is this? Dutton believe that the aesthetic elements of smell resist the structures—melodies, chords, rhymes, rhythms, narrative themes—that make art in other modalities so compelling. And further, despite its ability to evoke vivid memories, smell fails “to express or evoke emotions beyond those of personal association and nostalgia.”
Any person may associate a smell with other experiences or feelings (burning incense with one’s religion, for instance). But smells are oddly without the intrinsic emotions of the sort that seem to inhere in the structures of music or the expressively colored forms of painting.Here’s where I take issue with Dutton. For many animals, particular smells come with a built-in (evolved) meaning. Smell a tiger—flee! Smell ripe fruit—eat! In contrast, humans assign meaning to smells; it is this ability to reprogram the meaning of molecule that makes smell so involving and—contrary to Dutton’s conclusion—potentially artistic.
As for the lack of intrinsic emotions, Dutton is simply off base. My colleagues and I have shown experimentally that smells have colors, auditory pitch, and physical texture. In my commercial work with consumer panels, I routinely find that fragrances have specific mood profiles. These intrinsic features are there—whether they’ve been used effectively by olfactory artists is another matter. Dutton thinks that if olfactory art were going to happen, it would have happened by now. I'm more optimistic; it could still happen.
Despite my disagreement with some of the points he raises, I think Dutton in these few, brief pages has done us all a favor by clarifying the issues and redefining the debate about whether smell can be art.