The Scent Stripped Bare by Its Curator, Even.
The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012 occupies the fourth floor of the Museum of Arts & Design on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. The main exhibit is a large room with a white wall. Along the wall are twelve smooth indentations that from a distance look as if a giant pressed his thumb into putty. On closer inspection each has a narrow cleft at the bottom. The overall effect is vaguely gynecological. Lean into the shallow, curved opening and you notice a hole in the bottom. A sly reference to Duchamp’s urinal? A hiss and a low rumble of plumbing announce a scented air stream rushing to meet your face. It’s MAD’s version of a swirlie.
An explanatory text appears now and then beside the opening, backlit in white letters. The text is reproduced in a pamphlet that observes all the proper forms of an art show catalog: artist’s name, the work’s title, its date and provenance, and a brief description of its significance. Except that the twelve art works in question are perfumes. And therein lies the central conceit of The Art of Scent: its whiny, foot-stomping, insistence that perfume is Art.
A side room offers the same dozen perfumes in a more traditional medium—alcoholic solution. They are arranged in clear covered platters on a clear Plexiglas table surrounded by clear plastic stools. Labeled blotters are provided for dipping and sampling. (Unusually shaped, these are the capellini of blotters; they bring to mind the phrase pencil-dick bug f***er.)
Along the wall of the side room are five stations that dispense scent-sample cards from biomorphic protrusions on the wall. (They are suggestively labial in a Videodrome sort of way.) The samples consist of four accords from, and the complete formula of, Lancôme’s Trésor. Here a visitor actually gets to look under the hood and see how perfumer Sophia Grojsman built the fragrance. The accords (incorrectly equated with “mods” in the accompanying text) by themselves are stark and seemingly unrelated; their integration in the finished fragrance is remarkable, and vividly illustrates the complicated, combinatorial magic of perfumery.
The liquid versions don’t always match those wafting out of the wall, which were adapted to suit the dry delivery system. In particular, the wall’s Drakkar Noir was coming apart—a grassy note stood out and the impression was not at all like the (very familiar) commercial product.
The final piece of the exhibit is an iPad app that lets visitors pair an abstract descriptor with a realistic one to describe each perfume, and then projects a word cloud representation of the current tally onto a screen at the end of the room. Pointless but harmless fun.
All this spritz and tell has one objective: to sell the notion that perfume is Art. In a world where a crucifix in jar of urine and a sliced-up sheep in formaldehyde are considered masterpieces, this would seem to be a fairly low bar to clear. Yet, the exhibit huffs and puffs to make its point.
For example, the words “perfume” and “perfumer” appear nowhere in the catalog. This ostentatious omission is part of curator Chandler Burr’s puerile attempt to win the argument by recasting its terms. He talks about olfactory art, not perfume. He talks about scent creators and scent artists, not perfumers. He talks about patrons, not perfume brands. He slings a lot of hash about “aesthetic visions,” “abstraction,” “ornamentation,” “minimalism,” “hyper-realism,” “diaphanous quality of light,” and “21st century sensibilities,” but nothing about top notes or fragrance families. The idea seems to be that if he can talk about perfume in purely artistic terms, it must be Art. But calling it so doesn’t make it so.
Beyond sheer assertion, Burr’s only specific claim is that olfactory Art only became possible with the invention of synthetic fragrance chemicals in the late 19th century:
By freeing olfactory artists from an exclusively natural palette, they [synesthetics] turned scent into an artistic medium.So if you didn’t have coumarin or vanillin on the shelf, you weren’t doing Art. Tough beans for Giovanni Maria Farina, who created Eau de Cologne in 1708, or Jean-Louis Fargeon, perfumer to Marie-Antoinette. And whatever ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian perfumers were doing, it wasn’t Art.
The odd thing about Burr’s claim is that it ignores the difference between a flower and a perfume oil. A pile of rose petals on the floor of a barn in Bulgaria does not a natural palette make. Petals must be distilled, extracted, de-waxed, filtered, and blended before the perfumer can reach for a bottle of rose oil. The same goes for the bales of patchouli, the crates of oakmoss, and so on. Once processed, these materials have an amplified, focused smell that, while it may be reminiscent of the source, is entirely novel, man-made, and not found in nature.
What’s missing from The Art of Scent, with its clean white walls and transparent furniture, are the messy, colorful worlds of commerce and fashion—the reason these fragrances exist in the first place. Consumers don’t buy Drakkar Noir to hang on the wall or admire on the mantelpiece. Yet in Burr World, Pierre Wargnye is an artist who woke up one morning in the mood to “violate” the “strict line between ‘fine’ and ‘functional’ fragrances.” The Muse told him to start with a shitload of synthetic dihydromyrcenol and the result was Art. In real life, the Guy Laroche people circulated a fragrance brief and Pierre Wargnye worked on it because that’s what his employer, a large, publicly traded New York corporation, asked him to do. And it became the “most significant and influential scent” of the 1980s because a lot of guys bought it. To wear. On their skin. To attract chicks.
You can stick your head in the wall all day long, but you won’t learn that at MAD. The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012 smells okay, but it’s a history deprivation chamber.
P.S. As a gesture to loyal FN fans, we brought the BurrOMeter out of storage, fired it up, and aimed the sensors at the show catalog.
Name Drops: 17
Jean-Claude Ellena Deluxe Triple Bonus Points®: 3
Autre Merde Française Bonus Points: 4
traditional French floral
nineteenth-century French scent making
Le Capitaine Louis Renault Bonus Points: 4
Total BurrOmeter reading for The Art of Scent: 55 milliburrs
Outlook: Clear skies, clear furniture. Smooth sailing: no friction, no traction.