Sunday, September 13, 2009

Is Olfactory Art Possible? Denis Dutton Says No

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.


ScentScelf said...

Hmmm. Speaking from a belfry, of course, but I can't agree with Mr. Dutton's distinction between the experience/processing of music and that of scent. I absolutely feel similarities in my experience of the two when it comes to feeling the combination of "notes" in a perfume as both a chord (within a moment) and as a melody (evolution of time). Similar perfumes therefore please me differently due to whether I, like Miles, dig the space between the notes or not. (Could be an issue of timing, of clustering, happy/unhappy dissonance, what have you.)

As a person who teaches both language and film, is not the issue with scent not that it is "not cognitive," but that we have no language for it?

Avery Gilbert said...


I'm skeptical about "lack of vocabulary" arguments. How much does a movie-goer need to know about jump cuts, fades, and dissolves to appreciate a film?

You're right that smells have temporal features and composed arrangements. But I'm also sympathetic to Dutton's idea that it's hard to create a gestural, representative art form out of smells. Yes, they can be a powerful leitmotiv when combined with visual or auditory elements, but it's tough to have them stand alone in the foreground; odor perception is a background activity most of the time.

In my book I speculate that the human nose evolved to serve the mouth; that our particular talent is not long-distance odor detection but in-the-mouth savoring of olfactory nuance. If so, then lamb curry is an artwork, as is a fine perfume. The chef and the perfumer are artists. We don't expect them to sing and dance. Neither do we expect Mr. Bojangles to be good in the kitchen.

ScentScelf said...

Sometimes I think my nose evolved to sense barometric pressure and the presence of mold.

But seriously...I can't let that go quite so easily. A movie goer DOES need to understand that a jump cut means we've transitioned to another scene, and not simply that a world vanished, and needs to comprehend whether that dissolve indicates a transition into another level of consciousness, or simply was a pretty way of moving to another location. We DO have a cinematic vocabulary, one that we must at least comprehend ("hear"), and then perhaps can explain ("hey kids, that frame within a frame draws your attention to the character silhouetted there").

How many languages I'll leave for another day--different conventions for cinematic shorthand emerge in different cultures. In perfume, that could be your cumin is my icky hey-who-needs-a-shower.

The stand alone argument is interesting. I see the point about leitmotif. I feel the need to follow two paths of reply here: One focusing on just how much we expect an art form to encompass in one presentation--a poem expressing the pain of loss, for example, need not tell the narrative of the cause, form, and detail of the death that led to the feeling of loss. Sometimes an idea is a leitmotif; sometimes, it is the thing.

Two, once I go down that path, I feel the need to run back and say Hey, but don't shortchange the power of a complex perfume to stand alone as evocative and changing over time--with leitmotifs. ;)

All that said, I feel rather like I'm a rube playing devil's advocate. I'm still exploring all of this--including your book, which has not yet arrived at my mailbox. That admitted, I'm gonna go ahead and be bold (haven't I already?) and submit that perhaps the nose is being shortchanged. We have asked the legs to dance and not simply get us away from the charging beast. We have asked the eyes to identify chiaroscuro in Caravaggio, and not simply a lurking predator in the penumbra. We have asked our ears to understand a C9 diminished chord, and not simply if the gazelles are running away.

I am a bit confused by Mr. Bojangles. It seems we are entering a dialogue which covers the territory of art versus craft...whether cooking can occur at the level of art...are you arch in saying the chef and the perfumer are artists? Or sincere? You see, I am not expecting perfume to dance, or to sing, or to paint. I am expecting it to smell. In a complex way, that brings pleasure, and makes my brain process it in a way that brings meaning, both direct and metaphorical.

Sometimes. Othertimes, it just smells good. Afterall, Bojangles is Bojangles, and Barishnikov is Barishnikov.

Anonymous said...

I think the medium is just too difficult to work with. Nobody plays with odors in elementary school art class, sharing your artwork with others is a nontrivial technical challenge, the raw materials are often expensive and hard to store, and the rules for ordering and mixing odors are much harder to grasp than the rules for ordering and mixing colors.

Eliza said...

I wonder if fragrance's path to Art is slow because of the difference of opinion when it comes to descriptions and classifications.

I was curious about the work mentioned with consumer panels - if it was found that people gave similar mood profiles to very familiar odors (eg lemon) but less similar profiles for unfamiliar notes (eg orris)?

I also wonder if the sometimes highly subjective reviews of fragrances slows down the process (e.g. scent of the wet fur of a musk rat that's been clubbing downtown in NYC whilst puffing on a Gauloise etc). It doesn't do much for the olfactive world's credibility, let alone aid in the process of learning something.

I can't help but feel that until there's a common language for discussing scent, things will be a little murky.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I'm not going to make any comment on the book before I read it, but the two cents I'm adding here is that whenever I smell some great perfumes, I find myself wondering things like, "How is this made? Who made it? And what thoughts did he have in making it?" I see myself learning to imagine the "perfumer's thoughts" and the "process", just like appreciating an art piece from the sculptor Donald Judd.

To me, the sense of smell is definitely an art form.

I really enjoyed reading this article and the comments from the guests.

Jonah said...

Personally, I feel that the reason smell cannot be taken seriously as an artform is because of the delivery methods used to convey the smells. In the future, I am sure we will have developed far more sophisticated methods than just blowing scented air/oil. In the same way that we used to hand color or dye film, or put a screen over our television to give an illusion of color, or in the same way that 3D technology is leading us to a point where we may not need eyewear to see the image in 3D, smell will ultimately be the same way. I am of the amateur belief that once we achieve a less invasive method of distributing a scent, and have a better way of developing and designing these smells (and controlling them), people will be more receptive. It will take time, but people still are smell obsessed. Lets say we have designer scents in the future where we can replicate a scent embedded in our memory...people WILL go for that. So lets not give up hope.

carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

It's difficult to comment on the author's line of reasoning without having read the book, but I admit my first reaction was: someone who thinks olfactory works of art are impossible has never smelled Mitsouko. Or Chanel N°19. Or L'Heure Bleue.
The way perfume develops in time may be different from a musical composition, but nevertheless, odorant materials do have "intrinsic relations among themselves", as any perfumer or perfume lover knows. There *are* structures: otherwise, we could all be mixing the next Chanel N°5 in our kitchens (we aren't, any more than we're composing fugues).

Of course, perfume is also an industrial, commercial product and thus, can be thought of more as an applied art. But I would definitely defend the status of certain compositions as works of art in themselves. And as you say, Dr. Gilbert, there *is* a language of smells, though it's not commonly taught.

Perfumery, in the modern sense, is a very young art: you have yourself attended the scent opera composed by Christophe Laudamiel. Such initiatives could develop.

Finally, like Eliza, I am very intrigued by your findings on mood profiles: any sustained reading of the various perfume blogs corroborates this.

Avery Gilbert said...

I didn't mean to leave my reply to all these interesting comments hanging so long. In the spirit of playing speed chess at five boards simultaneously, here goes!


I buy the idea that we respond to the conventions of a "visual vocabulary" when watching film. Not sure we need to be taught it, or even to be articulate about it to appreciate the movie. To Dutton's point, the visual vocabulary was developed after the technology emerged. So maybe we need an off-the-shelf Smell-O-Vision system so creative people can come up with the olfactory equivalent of perspective, transitions, etc.


I think we should do more sensory education in general. And I agree that one reason olfactory art hasn't advanced rapidly is that every artist has to re-invent the wheel in terms of finding raw materials and building delivery systems. As for the rules--well, the artists will develop them once there's a device at hand. I know, it's a chicken and egg thing at this point.


Consumer response to the "color" or "mood" of scents doesn't depend on familiarity. I tested obscure, known only to the trade sorts of smells and got similar results. I agree that all the fantasy verbiage may get between the consumer and the experience. But my aim was to find out if there are nonverbal ways to characterize smells and indeed there are: Point to a color chip or finger a piece of fabric.


What I wonder about when smelling a great perfume is how did the perfumer imagine it before beginning the process of creation?


Like you I'm an optimist. Give people a smell machine and they will create olfactory art.

Which is actually not a bad idea for a design competition, no? One machine, twelve artists, go.


I agree--great perfumes and classic dishes are olfactory art, at least up till now. Yet Dutton gives them short shrift. He says people won't class them alongside the Iliad or Guernica. Personally, [cue Hannibal Lecter voice]I'd rather have a nice bottle of Chianti than spend another ten minutes with Guernica. Qu'est-ce que c'est? Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa . . .

Frans Pruced said...

In the article is mentioned about to imagine the difficulties in designing a scent organ for playing smells like music. I would say, have a look at the olfactiano of Peter De Cupere, an olfactory artist. He worked since 1997 on a scentpiano. In 2004 I saw one of his first scentconcerts in Brussels, fragrances sponsored by IFF. It was his 7th olfactiano. I don't know if he has made others, but I can say that it was amazing how much control he has over the amount of smell he let experience. It took only 15 minutes, it was like creating a perfume through time. The first minutes you could smell each odor separetly. You can see the olfactiano, I think is the 7th one on his website or on He has also an account on but there is no image of his olfactiano.

I like your article.

luke gaillard said...

"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."

What about the ephemeral nature of flavor and fragrance? Maybe if the best culinary experiences could be duplicated easily enough to be experienced by enough people for enough time, some dishes would start to stand out from the crowd and maybe get into the history books. But they can't. Food is just a different kind of art. One could argue that wines and perfumes can be more mass-produced and experienced by enough people, but still, the difficulty of getting under enough noses (in as consistently a fashion as songs can get into ears) is a limiting factor. In visual art, if a particular photo is popular enough, it can be copied, shared, and written about, all the way into the history books. Culinary creations are multisensory experiences that simply can't maintain high enough quality when mass-reproduced or widely shared.

But perhaps one day we will be able to easily copy and share perfumes. I would predict that on that day, perfume as an art form would switch from being ephemeral to eternal, and the very nature of the artform--and its canon--would change. Our current olfactory masterpieces are young, having arisen from recent technology. But maybe as time and technology evolves, our chanel no 5s could become olfactory mona lisas.

I would hope that anyone pondering the reasons that olfactory and culinary art produce less famous masterpieces than those of visual or auditory art would address the issue of them being so ephemeral.

"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."

Honesty he sounds like someone who has a very limited view of what art is, akin to a classical music fan who refuses to call kraftwerk music. I do appreciate his thoughts, but at least as you've relayed them here, he sounds somewhat embarrassingly small-minded.