Perfume is Not an Object: A Few Thoughts about Perfume and Art

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Is perfume art? Could it be? Or is it something else: a craft, a commercial product, an ornament, a luxury, a prosthetic, an aphrodisiac, a love letter, a prayer, a con? Why does it matter?


Until recently, these kinds of questions rarely made it out of the perfume world. The exceptions–stories about professional provocateurs, like Sissel Tolaas, who captured the scent of fear, or Christophe Laudamiel, who created scents for the world economic forum at Davos and put on a scent opera–suggested perfume is considered art only when it escapes the beauty counter and begins to look and smell like something barely recognizable as perfume.


But, as many of you already know, thanks to “The Art of Scent 1889-2012″ now on exhibit through February at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, the is-perfume-art discussion is having a mainstream moment. Today I’m using this space (A lot of it. I apologize in advance for the un-bloggish length of this post.) to outline a few broad points that I think have been missing from that conversation. I’m aware that this level of perfume geekery may not be of general interest. Do come back on Monday for those long-promised cocktails if it’s not.


The Art of Scent is a complex show in it’s entirety (please see this great walk-through on CaFleurbon, and my art historian friend Jessica’s review up on Now Smell This today). Its centerpiece is a presentation of twelve mainstream commercial perfumes ranging from icons like Guerlain’s Jicky and Chanel’s No. 5 to lesser known contemporaries like Martin Margiela’s Untitled as examples of, or at least related to, major artistic movements: Jicky is Romantic, Angel is Surrealist and so on.  The perfumes are presented solely as scents–no bottles, advertisements, historical photos or other contextual ephemera are included.


Art critic Blake Gopnik’s profile of the show’s curator–author and former New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr, who was named head curator of the new Department of Olfactory Art at MAD in 2010–and a Times feature on the show, by reporter Carol Kino suggest mixed reactions to Burr’s ideas, as does the conversation in the perfume cybersphere. Generally criticism has centered on the perfumes Burr chose to include, the usefulness (or lack thereof) of his classifications and some of the strong negative statements he’s made about the practice of describing perfumes according to their notes (roses, citrus, sandalwood etc.).1


I have not seen the show, and though I don’t agree with some of Burr’s choices, a point-by-point critique is not my aim here. As always, my primary goal when it comes to perfume is evangelical pedagogical. I simply want to convert open up as many people as possible to the richness, strangeness and beauty of perfume. A successful museum show is a great way to do that, and this one, with its sci-fi marvels and fabulous attendant workshops and lectures, looks fantastic.  I’m thankful for the work Burr and the staff at MAD have done and are doing to make that happen.


But (you knew there was a but coming, right?) I think we have an opportunity, now that people are paying attention, to have a much more interesting conversation about perfume and art than the one currently in play, and that expanding the parameters of that conversation might also expand the number of people willing to take perfume seriously. I got my doctorate in an era when scholars were busy arguing for greater inclusion of works by women and people of color, messiness and subversion were prized, and any kind of universal aesthetic judgments–even the category “art” itself–were up for scrutiny. I can’t help seeing some parallels between these struggles and the current effort to get some prestige and recognition for perfume as an art form. (Or whatever we decide it is.)


In literary studies, one of the most exciting things about welcoming in  previously excluded  texts was that they demanded new ways of reading and offered new insight into understanding the cultural work literature can do. So in general, I am much more interested in how perfume can rile up and call into question traditional categories of art than I am in whether or not traditional categories of art can be applied to perfume. In fact, I think that kind of riling up of categories is intrinsic to perfume: with a history located at the intersection of the erotic, the spiritual and the medical, and a contemporary life somewhere in between art, science and international trade, it is an incorrigible boundary crosser that refuses to stay in its bottle. It is exactly that complexity that most of the people I speak to about perfume–and I talk to lots and lots of non-believers–find most surprising and seductive.


With all that in mind, below are a few broad points (not by any means a complete list) that might be the first draft of a critical proposal–maybe even a perfume manifesto.  Please chime in with expansions, counterarguments, more suggestions.


1) Perfume is not an object, it is a site-specific performance or narrative.

A perfume is not a painting or a sculpture–it is ephemeral and designed to disappear. Like a film, or a story, it has a beginning, middle and end. That story is designed to take place on the wearer’s skin or clothing and the performance that ensues changes according to context: a bedroom, a city street, a church potluck. Sometimes perfume is made for a specific, imagined performance–a tween girl in a mall, a woman in a Chanel suit on her way to work, someone with good memories of campfires falling in love, and so on. The performance may be repeated, but it does not exist in a static form.  Like a film, perfume is usually designed by a team of people–at the very least a perfumer and an evaluator of some kind, even if that evaluator is the indie perfumer’s neighbor. (Note that both film and performance have had their own difficulties being accepted as art.) When we analyze perfume solely as a smell we are only getting half the story, if that.

One interesting effect of this idea: Emotional storytelling about perfume, so easy to dismiss as too personal to be true intellectual criticism (whatever that is), becomes a helpful description of perfume’s performance.


2) In the 20th and 21st-century West, perfume’s performance takes place primarily on a woman’s skin or in her general vicinity.

Men can, do, and should wear (and create and think about) perfume. Many women don’t. But there’s no getting around the fact in the West from at least 1889 onward if not far longer, perfume has been strongly linked to femininity in general, and to specific, identifiable fantasies of feminine glamour, beauty, sexuality, purity, power, corruption, anarchy and desirability in particular.  Perfume’s history is also, to this extent, women’s history. Perfume’s feminization is key to understanding why it hasn’t been taken seriously as an art form–consider the similar struggles of fashion, jewelry, textiles, even cooking. But any attempt to raise perfume’s prestige as a “pure” art form that depends on making the woman in the room invisible also makes much of perfume’s complex cultural work invisible.


3) Perfume may be neglected and disparaged, but it is not mute. A rich history of critical and descriptive language for perfume exists and should be valued.

“Perfume criticism” analogous to critical work on film, literature or art may still be emerging, but that doesn’t mean, as Burr tells Times reporter Kino, that we “have not had anything other than a marketing language” with which to understand modern perfume. (Burr obviously knows this, so I have to assume he has reasons for dismissing other vocabularies as inappropriate.) Perfumers have both technical and descriptive vocabulary, and an understanding of their work as a citation/interpretation of perfumes from the past and interpreting the scents of the natural and manmade world. The great Edmond Roudnitska wrote a series of thoughtful essays that amount to perfume philosphy. Scholars like Alain Corbin (The Foul and the Fragrant) and more recently, Holly Dugan (The Ephemeral History of Perfume) have shown us, the common vocabulary for and understanding of perfume and its uses pre-1889 was in many ways far richer than our own.2 My suspicion is that the further back we go to the era when perfume was currency, medicine, spirituality and eroticism rolled up into one, the richer these vocabularies become (especially when we include Eastern as well as Western classical texts)  and that the more we know about them, the more surprised we might be by the way these ideas and gestures have survived into modernity.


Even the seemingly simple practice of describing a perfume according to its notes (as opposed to its raw materials, which are very different)–dismissed by Burr in the same interview as “idiotic reductionism”–can be a sophisticated form of criticism that traces a perfume’s representations of, say, vanilla, or a rose, the way one might discuss two portraits of the same woman.  Discussing notes also requires a thorough understanding of the basic scent vocabulary of perfume, a vocabulary that, unlike color, is virtually unknown to the majority of people. (We all have some idea of what blue and green look like but many people have no idea what vetiver, bergamot, or aldehydes smell like.)


In any case–and this is so important to me that I almost made it a separate point in my list– the places where perfume is linked to the ordinary world through common smells, natural or manmade (including perfume itself) are crucial entry points for people who are new to perfume and who want to understand and enjoy its beauty. They need not be the endpoint, but they make an excellent beginning.


And that is where we are: at the beginning.


1. Denyse Beaulieu has been parsing these issues for some time over on her blog, Grain de Musc. See especially this post where she considers Gopnik’s objections. Burr responds in the comments. [Update: Denyse has now responded to this post and most helpfully gathered together links to all the posts she’s made regarding these topics.]  Katherine Chan also chronicles connections between art and perfume on her blog Mad Perfumista. You can begin with this excerpt from Huysmans.

2. Victoria Frolova’s comments on Facebook reminded me that Luca Turin surely belongs in this list as a generator of critical language for perfume, first in his early, French version of Perfumes: The Guide  (a story Burr documented in The Emperor of Scent) and later on his own blog and the English version of The Guide, which he wrote with Tania Sanchez, a fine critic in her own right. And of course the language generated by blogs like Victoria’s own Bois de Jasmin, Robin Krug’s Now Smell This, Marina Geigert’s Perfume Smellin’ Things, The Perfume Posse and a host of others have been crucial to both creating vocabulary and generating conversation around perfume. The latter is something I so take for granted (I wrote about it extensively in Coming to My Senses) that I forgot to include it in my original post.

[ETA: I wrote a follow up to this post, summarizing the fascinating discussion in the comments below, here. (But do read the comments, they are excellent.) I did eventually see the MAD exhibit for myself, but chose not to review it since so much had been written about it at that point. The one aspect of the show I would have liked to discuss was the total absence of discussion about reformulation. The perfumes were presented in their modern formulations, but treated as the original historical versions.]



  1. Katherine Chan

    Hi Alyssa,

    I have so many thoughts about this that I don’t think I will be able to get it all in this comment! There has been a tendency towards thinking about perfume as art, not from the perspective of perfume insiders, but from living contemporary artists who are looking for new means of expression. Perfume is special, not only because it’s performance-based and ephemeral, but also because it draws out human experience unlike any other form. Unlike our current media culture where we are bombarded with images and text, smell culture is still untrodden territory. We can associate roses with summer or lavender with our grandmother’s closets, but for the most part it’s a language that has not been completely over-determined by capitalistic forces. Smell can still be a very personal thing, and as a form of art it doesn’t have any comparison outside of music–there’s a reason why we talk about “notes” in a perfume. I have not seen the MAD Museum’s show yet, but I did see Martynka Wawrzyniak’s show at Envoy Enterprises last week before it closed. Wawrzyniak distilled her own odors into perfume that visitors could experience by walking into a chamber where 4 scents were diffused, giving you a palette by which you could experience a smell-based self-portrait. It was pretty fascinating. I see a lot more of this kind of work coming from contemporary artists, mostly women who are interested in deconstructing the relationship between scent and the body.


    • Hi, Katherine. Thank you for this fascinating report from the art world (that’s where you are, yes?). The point you make about smell being “untrodden territory,” and therefore more available to artists looking for a less over-determined language is a particularly interesting one. I wonder how that translates back into valuing perfume that looks like perfume (rather than scent art)? How, in other words, do we make visible the history and the thought that goes into constructing a scent that *does* fit into the marketplace?

      I hope you’ll feel free to come back and add thoughts as they occur to you. I clearly felt no need to keep things short. 🙂


  2. Katherine Chan

    Well, for starters, I had never really been to a scent exhibition in the art world where the actual perfume was for sale (I’ve purchased reformulated, created for the market versions like Lisa Kirk’s Revolution, for sale at Luckyscent). In Wawrzyniak’s show, each vial of her distilled body scent went for $6,500 a piece, and the smell machine was $50,000! I understand there are fabrication and material costs, but it’s quite a bit for something that might evaporate in a year or so!


    • This gets more and more interesting, Katherine. I think my question to you was unclear though. What I meant was–how can we bring some of the insights that the art world has had about perfume to the way people (in the art world and out) view ordinary, commercial perfume–Shalimar, No. 5, and so on. That’s what I think Burr is up to, and what I’m hoping to address here.

      Wawrzyniak’s project takes place wholly within the framework of art, even though it clearly responds to the legacy of commercial perfume. (She might, for example, have been thinking about her own body odors vs those mandated as feminine.) In that way, it’s not much different from the Tolaas project I cited above. But like that project, it veers away completely from the traditional scent vocabulary and traditional uses (surely for all but a very few people) of perfume. This is nearly always the case when I see perfume in an art world context–it no longer “smells good” or is something that can be used as adornment.

      The example you gave me over on FB–Kiki Smith’s collaboration with Laudamiel ( seems more like branding, less like art. But why should that be?

      All that said I LOVE hearing about these projects and I clearly need to be reading your blog on a regular basis and will be linking your Huysman post pronto.


      • Katherine Chan

        Thank you so much for linking to my Huysmans post! When I had the opportunity to ask Ralf Schweiger about the difference between art and perfume making, he said what he was doing was more artisanal rather than artistic, that there was a kind of craft involved that separated what he did from say what Rembrandt was trying to do. There are parameters, it seems, between one and the other, but I find that contemporary artists are more willing to take the chance, to expand the idea of perfume beyond what it is now. When I encounter an artist making perfume that actually smells good, I am suspicious because the concept in art should trump the final product, which should not be commercial. Basically, I would love to go around wearing a perfume that STINKS, but does so purposefully to convey a point of view. That to me is what a work of art is.


        • breathesgelatin

          I’m a bit confused by your comments that fragrant art should not be commercial. Isn’t art inherently commercial? An artist makes a piece that they hope to sell – or at least REACH someone with, if not sell. So art is always already seeking a audience, seeking to say something…

          I generally agree that in fragrant art, the concept trumps the final product – so likely they’re not going to be as readily appealing as, say, Light Blue (which isn’t appealing to me actually – but is to millions of others), but I find it hard to believe that fragrant art should stink, and that things that are more stinky are by definition more arty.

          Then, there are perfumes that are designed to be perfumes that stink, too, right? Things like Secretions Magnifiques and that Marc Atlan orgasm perfume or whatever it was called. Which were created more as commercial products than as art – they didn’t go on exhibition.

          The whole question about the commercialism of art leads me to one of my major annoyances about the exhibit (which I haven’t seen and likely won’t), which is that Chandler Burr seems to think (pretend?) that by removing the perfumes from their packaging and context, he’s de-commercialized them so we can appreciate them as pure art. But the very fact that they’re on display, that the exhibit is sponsored by the fragrance companies, that he’s chosen to use things from the big brands (that can pay him), means that the whole exhibit is a form of marketing for these brands, too. Which is OK – I like most of the perfumes on display, actually – but I feel it’s a bit dishonest of him.

          Back to aesthetics: I also think that a lot of visual art is profoundly beautiful. I think there is something to beauty. I’m not a literary or art theorist – my training is in French history – but as an undergrad I was a double major in history and philosophy and I took a ton of classes in continental philosophy. Thus I was incredibly averse to traditional formal aesthetics. But… in recent years, through conversations I’ve had and especially wearing perfume, I’ve become a lot more interested in the concept of beauty… I think there is something to the greatest art that’s beautiful. I feel like we can do a better job of acknowledging and theorizing beauty in art without doing a lot of horrible things that old high formalists do (such as dismissing all art created by non-elite, non-white males). Maybe I’m just becoming an old fogey, though. I don’t know. And I’m really no expert on any of that.

          Something I can speak with somewhat more authority about is artisans, who I spent my time in grad school studying. And it does seem to me that in many ways commercial perfume like that displayed in the exhibit in question is artisanal. But a lot of pieces that artisans have produced are incredibly conceptual in nature, and have later been acclaimed as art. Yet the creators would not think of themselves as artists at all.

          An example in point is Bernard Palissy who probably thought of himself more as a craftsman, naturalist, and religious seeker, but whose work is on display at art museums now. And incidentally, I don’t really find his work beautiful, per se… I find it kind of disturbing in many cases. (Also, I just looked up his wikipedia page and they kind of diss his work over there, poor guy! I don’t quite think they’re really seeing what’s so interesting about him.) Palissy was one of the major subjects of study by one of my mentors in grad school… ( Anyone interested in “artisanal theory” might be interested in checking that book out – you can read the preface for free at Amazon. I’m doing so now and I almost want to cry because I’ll never write or think that well!

          Obviously, what’s discussed in that book I linked is very specific to the early modern world. However, I feel the same kind of thing could be done for more contemporary times, and I’m acutely interested in how this “artisanal theory” might be developed.

          Shit. I should really go back to grad school. UGGGGGGGGGGGH.


          • BG: DON’T GO BACK TO GRAD SCHOOL. That said, I think your point about making room for a discussion of beauty is a very good one–or at the least a discussion of standards *drawn from within the world of perfume.* That’s why, for example, I’m perfectly comfortable with the inclusion of Jicky, but much less so with Margiela’s Untitled. Jicky’s influence on perfume is clear, we’ve had time to see how it’s shaped so much of what came next.

            I also like your point about the impossibility of de-commercializing perfume simply by removing its packaging from the room. I have to think more about that. (I’m not sure I agree with you that the result is just a big advertisement, though.)

          • I’m with Alyssa: DON’T go back to grad school, BG.

        • So, under your definition, K, none of the perfumes in the MAD exhibit can be considered art, though they might be very, very good design or craft? In her comment on FB, my friend Nancy(hopefully she’ll show up here eventually) pointed out that in recent years the definition of art has shifted to the intention of
          the artist–it is, as you say, more about concept than about the material product. Since almost none of the perfumers involved seem to consider *themselves* artists (and I do find it very interesting that Burr doesn’t seem to care whether the perfumers claim the label or not), that would land us in the world of craft and design.

          All of this would be fine and dandy if craft and design were accorded the same respect and prestige that fine art is, but they aren’t. That’s at least one reason, maybe the biggest reason, we’re having this conversation, yes?

          Certainly, to the excellent point that BG makes below about beauty, when I’m faced with a perfume of stunning, undeniable beauty I want to call it art. Perhaps it’s just my own set of internal prejudices about craft vs. art kicking in, but I can’t help wanting there to be a way to recognize when something that could have just been very well done, a perfectly crafted answer to a brief, becomes something more. I have so much admiration for that moment, knowing all the pressures perfumers are under to make something safe and easy to sell.

          That pressure is yet another reason why I think the analogy of film and performance may be more productive than traditional fine art. (In fact, I’ve been thinking about inviting a film critic perfumista to weigh in on all this.) I’m thinking especially of films made under the studio system, like Casablanca and Philadelphia Story, or Citizen Kane, which strained at the boundaries of that system and may have announced its demise–a not irrelevant comparison for the current state of the perfume industry.
          And then we can have a whole other conversation about the problematic notion of the auteur and the way it erases all the other people who were involved in creating films and perfumes–including, very likely, nameless perfumers-in-training, or colleagues checking in mid-way. And we can begin to talk about audience reception, which people in film studies do all the time. (I remember what a shock that was to me as a literary studies person. Wow! They’re talking about the audience!)


          • Coming back to add–these analogies only go so far, of course. The real goal is to have perfume valued on its own terms, as whatever the troubling thing it is.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post and intriguing beginning conversation. Like Katherine, I fear I have too much to say. I haven’t been to the exhibit (yet), but I hope to go soon. I share your reservations about the way in which it seems to invoke “art” but also your hope that it inspires audiences to think—and talk—more about perfume and olfaction. Olfaction is one of those sensory ways of knowing that sharply influences our perception of reality about which we rarely think. So much of what we experience as visceral or true is actually constructed; if these twelve perfumes can inspire folks to think more broadly about that, then I’m all for it.

    That said, I thought Jessica’s critique as an art historian was spot on. I don’t quite understand why these categories of modernist art were chosen over others or why we are limited to modernist intellectual traditions. Like you, I think there’s a missed opportunity here for perfume to trouble boundaries. I love perfume for its complexity, though my definition of perfume is probably broader than most. Full disclosure: I’m a scholar of Renaissance literature and I’ve written about early modern perfume. Naturally, my first question about this exhibit is: why is there no engagement with any premodern traditions, perfume or otherwise? Why must modernism be the lens through which we engage with a perfume aesthetic? As you state so eloquently above, perfume is not mute. If that is true for modern perfume, it’s doubly so for its early modern counterpart. In fact, early modern English had an entire lexicon to talk about smells: Catholic censers, for example, “smeeked,” a term that captured their powerful—and smokey—exhalations. Objects also “ambered,” “civited,” “resented,” and “fetored.” Likewise, the discussion about whether notes or raw materials are reductionist falls away when one considers early modern recipes for perfumes. Comprised mostly of lists of raw materials, they’re almost entirely illegible unless they’re read against a broader cultural context, like those you cite above. They support your claim that perfume is a performance, and cultural one at that.

    One more thought–early modern perfume was not gendered in the ways that modern perfume is. But that is not to say that its history wasn’t written on women’s skin. My research for the book documented that Henry VIII was a voracious lover of damask rosewater; he also loved to gift it to his mistresses, not because he wanted his female lovers to smell of roses but because he wanted to claim them as his, since roses were a scent associated with him. It was an olfactory version of Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt” ( Such a history emphasizes (at least for me) one of the more radical aspects of twentieth-century perfumery and its modernist aesthetic: women—as perfume’s main consumers—wore perfume as much for themselves as they did for anyone else. That is a feminist history of pleasure that seems pretty radical and surreal, given the longer historical frame I’m used to.


    • Just the phrase “feminist history of pleasure” is fun to read, so thanks for that. (It’s interesting to think about all the ways the perfume industry has both promoted and tried to police the boundaries of that independent pleasure.) And thank you for all this historical richness. I’m going to answer you more fully below because I’d really like to think about how taking all this into account might affect the curation/presentation of perfume.


  4. Mary Stephens Mitchell

    What an interesting discussion! In September, I attended the opening of the exhibition, “Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde” at the Tate in London. By the way, this excellent exhibition is coming to the National Gallery in Washington early next year, and I encourage anyone who can see it to do so.

    Christina Bradstreet and Odette Toilette (the former a writer, and the latter the owner of a company that hosts ‘scratch and sniff’ events) led a tour through the gallery with a set of smell cards. The idea was to learn a bit about each work, close our eyes and smell the card to (hopefully) invoke the feel of the art. Most of the art/perfume matches were fairly literal, for example, the painting entitled ‘Convent Thoughts’ by Charles Alliston Collins (a nun in a garden surrounded by symbolic flowers) was matched with a card smelling of Penhaligon’s Lily and Spice. Other perfume choices were a bit curious, such as matching Rossetti’s The Blue Bower with Grossmith’s Hasu-no-Hana.

    I admired the idea and the attempt, but for me, works of visual art are simply too emotionally complex to tie into one particular scent. Perfumes are equally as complex. A perfume/artwork match could seem perfect one day, and completely discordant the next. So I think these types of exercises are thought-provoking and fun, but in the end, limiting.

    Alyssa, to your question, is perfume art? Of course, art and commercialism/consumerism are intimately tied. Most of the greatest works of art were conceived as business transactions between the artist and the client. Yes, I believe that perfume is art. It meets the Oxford dictionary’s definition: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. But I also agree with the very interesting assertion above that perfume is artisanal (‘hand crafted’), and really, that is probably most accurate to me.

    Also, while I do believe that the perfume itself brings up a lot of interesting points with respect to feminism, it is many of the advertising and marketing techniques that really concern me.

    Thanks for reading, Mary


    • Smell cards! I’m excited to experience this exhibit…thanks for the heads’up! Your comment about perfume’s complexity and its relationship to the visual complexity of art is so right and it made me think more about the museum as its own kind of sensory space designed to highlight that beauty. (The sonic effect of silence punctured with the sounds of those cell phone tours, for example, or my son shrieking through the dinosaur exhibit at the natural science museum). But museums have their own curious smells, partly comprised of its visitors (and cafes and gift shops). The design of the MAD exhibit intrigued me, especially the notion of creating an abstract space to highlight the scents of the exhibit. I wonder if it would matter if someone came in reeking of angel… Or if it became hot and overwhelming when crowded with visitors.


      • Holly, both you and Mary are highlighting something I hoped we’d talk about: the way that taking into account some of the points I’ve made above might affect the way we present perfume and teach others to appreciate it. Part of the difficulty is physical, but it quickly tips over into the philosophical. The MAD exhibit, for example, is one effort to deal with the impossibility of displaying the invisible, though it simply substitutes sci-fi modernism (or pornographic sculpture, depending on who is looking/describing) for the usual cues of a boudoir bottles or laboratory beakers.

        Your great list of sensory intrusions above raises another layer of difficulty. We deal with visual intrusion all the time while viewing museum art, of course–that’s not to say it isn’t a problem–but olfactory experience seems particularly vulnerable since our brains crave context while sniffing and are eager to convert suggestions, visual or otherwise, into reality.

        So: could we turn that craving to our advantage by providing cultural context or even some version of a perfume’s performance? What would that look like? Could it be as simple as better storytelling within the exhibit itself with both text and visuals? (How I would love to see Henry’s rosewater-branded women make an appearance… And how much fun would it had have been if Odette had presented viewers with the smells common to pre-Raph era–the perfumes the women were wearing, the flowers in their gardens, the incense the nun was burning, the scent of linseed and turpentine in the studio…) Maybe a static gallery space isn’t amenable to olfactory experience–maybe we need something that looks more like performance art?

        I know that in my own fantasies about presenting perfume, I think about an intimate, interactive display that would allow participants to teach themselves the language they needed to decipher the perfumes. A series of raw materials, say, followed by several mods and then the finished perfume. Then, this knowledge in their grasp, they’d be prepared for more performance and context. But this is just a bare bones beginning…


        • I love this last idea, as you’ve outlined it, Alyssa. And I wish I could attend that Pre-Raphaelite exhibition and its scent tour!


          • The funny thing is that Dior is doing something like this for their prestige line. At the Bergdorf’s boutique they present each perfume along with the raw mat that is at its core. Such a simple but powerful idea. I need to do a separate post about it.

  5. Mary Stephens Mitchell

    Yes, yes oh YES! Alyssa, I’m right there with you in imagining what a more complete olfactory link between art and perfume could be like.


    • 🙂 Perhaps a future attempt! One more reason to get the historians and the contemporary perfume people together.


  6. In spite of my nagging, there is a whole other conversation about this post going on over on Facebook on my personal pate (it’s public and you are all welcome). This comment is from the amazing Maria Browning, of the blog Bittergrace Notes among other things. She had trouble posting it here so I’m cutting and pasting for her:

    “Before you can ask whether perfume is art, you have to decide what art is – and boy, that’s a big ol’ cultural and philosophical can of worms. I think you touch on a critical point when you say perfume is not an object but a performance or narrative. You could also call it an event, and I would suggest that this quality is actually inherent in all art worthy of the name. Michelangelo’s David is indeed an object, but it is the particular quality of the viewer’s experience of the David that makes it unquestionably a work of art – unlike, say, a piece of marble that I might clumsily hack into the general shape of a human figure, which could only be considered art in the most general (and, I think, useless) sense of the term. Something happens when we look at Michelangelo’s creation. Exactly what that something might be, or can be, is a huge and difficult discussion. See Peter Schjeldahl’s Notes on Beauty for a nice lucid discussion of one small aspect of it. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s call that something ”meaning.” (And by meaning, I certainly don’t intend to imply something static, fixed, or even necessarily expressible in words.) So, if I decide to say that a creation rises to the level of art when it possesses the ability to convey meaning beyond mere form, then of course perfume can be art.

    Critical understanding of the artistic value or character of a perfume presents all the same problems you find in any critical discussion of painting, literature, music, etc. Burr is right to take issue with all the emphasis on cataloging notes. Is a Rembrandt nothing but palette and brush strokes? Somehow we have to describe the performance of the perfume, that meaning beyond mere form. Naturally, there should be various levels of doing this, depending on audience and critical intention.

    Have you ever come across Osip Mandelstam’s essay “Conversation About Dante?” I had never looked at it until yesterday, but oddly enough, many of Mandelstam’s remarks in there on the nature of poetry seem to apply to your question about perfume. I can’t really explain or paraphrase, but here are a couple of passages that came to mind:

    “In poetry only the executory understanding has any importance, and not the passive, the reproducing, the paraphrasing understanding. Semantic satisfaction is equivalent to the feeling of having carried out a command.”

    “The wave signals of meaning disappear once they have done their work: the more powerful they are, the more yielding, and the less prone to linger.”

    So there’s my 2 cents, and then some. Sorry if I rehashed points made elsewhere. It’s a fun question to play with. ☺”


    • Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, Maria. I have to admit that the further I go in trying to define “art” the less interest I have in the discussion. It’s simply too vague and philosophical a problem for my brain. But your definition above goes some way towards satisfying that urge I have to use “art” as a term of high praise. Now if we could only tackle the power/hierarchy/prestige bugaboo.

      The thing about the catalogue of notes: I partially agree with you–of course we have to have something in addition to that catalogue, but I don’t think notes=brushwork, necessarily. Sometimes its closer to subject matter, and so its at the core of the work–how does one represent X?


  7. Wow, I am learning so much here from all of you! And Holly, thank you for the references to Renaissance perfumery, I will certainly have to look that up. The practice of perfume making has a cultural history that is enormously rich and varied, but I agree with Burr’s choice to keep the scents to those from the Modern Era. It will be easier for us as museum visitors to truly see ourselves, whether as individuals or as society as a whole, reflected in a work of art by stirring memory, emotion, and desire.

    The art world is hungry for olfactory art. As the artistic discourses of the 1960’s and 70’s inspire artists to produce minimal, immaterial works, the issue of the commercialization of the art world also comes up. How do you sell an empty cube that collects condensation from the air on its inside (Hans Haacke)? What price do you assign to a work of art that is merely an empty gallery declared a work of art (Michael Asher)? The cynics in us think that everything has a price, but actually in this case it doesn’t–not if that was not the artist’s intention. If you make something in order to sell it–that is commercial. If you make something that is not meant to do anything at all outside of just being, then that is art.

    Intention is important to consider because that is the difference between perfume and art. Anicka Yi, a young New York based artist, made a perfume with a friend because she was inspired by the story of a Japanese woman who is now accused of bombing the Tel Aviv airport in 1972. Yi created the scent because she felt it was the best way to tell the story of this fascinating figure. (I wrote about her work on Cafleurebon in September.) She literally taught herself how to make perfumes, even went so far as to distill her own ingredients. Yi now sells bottles of the perfume to fund her other sensory based art, but the work itself was intended as art.

    As for the beauty question, I’m a little perverse. I like weird smells, ugly painting, and sad songs. I tend to distrust beauty, but that is a whole other can of worms!

    Thank you, Alyssa, for a stimulating conversation!


    • Thank you for bringing so much art world knowledge to the table Katherine! I love hearing about all this.


  8. What an absolutely delicious discussion, I am savoring every word!


  9. “Any attempt to raise perfume’s prestige as a “pure” art form that depends on making the woman in the room invisible also makes much of perfume’s complex cultural work invisible.”

    Hear, hear. Yes, a few female perfumers are featured in the “Art of Scent” installation, but the female audience for these fragrances (most of which were designed for women) is not mentioned.

    And what about the female designers, like Coco Chanel and Miuccia Prada, whose very personal aesthetics shaped the brands that made these fragrances possible? They’re not named on the label texts.


    • All excellent curatorial questions! And when I say ‘cultural work’ I also mean things like the way Coco Chanel, or Mugler for that matter, with those shoulders, offered women a certain kind of identity and power. Perfume has always been intimately bound up in those cultural shifts for women.


  10. ChickenFreak

    In addition to stripping the fragrance of its historical context and the context of the wearer, it sounds as if the exhibit strips it of development over time. Presumably the fragrance dispensers always produce the same scent, and even the liquid perfume is provided for use on blotters, which won’t have a normal development. (By the way, I’m not clear on how the exhibit ensures that the liquid is only available for blotters – is there some sort of slot that keeps the viewers from dabbing it on skin?)

    That eliminates one of the, to me, most fascinating aspects of perfume, the fact that a group of aromachemicals are all evaporating at different rates, producing a different combined scent moment by moment over time. Even more interesting, I’ve always assumed–am I wrong?–that various factors (temperature, skin composition, perhaps even humidity?) introduce unpredictability into the exact proportion of each component.

    I assume that it’s this unpredictability that’s responsible for the gorgeous honeycomb note that only occasionally–perhaps one out of five wearings–appears when I wear Velvet Gardenia. Or causes Luctor et Emergo to do that back and forth, funhouse-mirror shift between Play-Doh and cherries.

    I picture it, and perhaps this is a rather overwrought analogy, as an orchestra of musicians, each playing their own part without being able to hear the others, with only a very approximate guide as to timing. And a composer that has to write the part for each musician, ensuring that the unpredictably shifting music thus produced is beautiful–or terrifying, or disturbing, or whatever was intended. Or perhaps it’s even written so that a disturbing moment _might_, sometimes, appear, as if by magic, if just the right musicians reach just the right point at just the same time.

    Now, I’m not saying that it would be easy to demonstrate the development of a perfume over time, but to me that element feels essential to the art-or-otherwise debate.

    But…um… why? What’s my point?

    I could argue that other art has an element of time, an opportunity for the viewer (listener, reader…) to absorb the art and reflect on the experience. The element of time is obvious with music, dance, film, any performance art. Someone could counter with the argument that a painting or photograph is what it is, and it doesn’t change over time–the viewer may change their angle, their focus, scan from place to place in the painting, but it’s not the painting itself that changes while under observation. On the other hand, a book or poem doesn’t change while under observation, but the element of time is present all the same, because the reader can’t absorb the entire work in one moment–and the same could be said of the painting.

    Maybe that’s where I’m going–the idea that a single, unchanging smell, without the element of development and change and the associated uncertainties, is further from “art”, however we define it, than the orchestra of changing smells that make up a developing perfume.



    • Chickenfreak, your point about the fragrance’s evolution/development over time being lost in this installation is quite accurate. The “scent machines” emit streams of fragranced air that are somehow whisked back into the machine as soon as the visitor has a chance to sniff them. It’s a very “dry” and almost sterile effect, and nothing is diffused into the air around the machine. I don’t understand the exact technology, obviously, but this was my experience.

      In the second room of the exhibition, visitors can dip blotters into small glass bowls of liquid fragrance. (Each bowl has a clear lid with a small slot for the blotter, to prevent splashing or spilling!) This process gives a better idea of the fragrance, since the visitor can linger and sniff his/her blotter repeatedly.

      I spied more than woman brushing a damp blotter against her own wrists or neck, almost furtively! That’s the best way to experience fragrance, of course.


    • Yes, CF (I just can’t call you ChickenFreak in the middle of this very serious conversation!) the aspect of time is part of what I was trying to get at by emphasizing the way perfume is a performance rather than an object, and you’ve expanded on the point beautifully here. I too am continually baffled by the magic trick of chemistry that lets perfumers create that symphony. It’s also one of the most challenging aspects of perfume for a curator–or a sales associate for that matter! How do we get people to sit still long enough for the performance to happen? How to guide them through it?

      Jess, I love, love, love knowing women were applying the perfume. What a fantastic way to bring bodies back into the exhibit!


  11. Emily Friedman

    I’m coming late to the party, but since I think (as many have said here and at NST) this is clearly the beginning of the conversation (and study, and thinking).

    Disclosure: I am finishing up my first book, which starts where Holly’s Ephemeral History of Perfume ends (so, Britain from 1660 until about 1820). What’s interesting to me is that the richness of Holly’s period gets a little lost as modernity starts to kick in, *and yet* there’s still a lot we can talk about in terms of this moment of flux before perfume becomes a specific object rather than a whole constellation of scenting practices.

    More to the point is how that project seems to be morphing into my next mini-project, tackling the modern context: we’ve already mentioned the way that the art world is invoked/practicing scented art/etc. But what I’m particularly interested in is the rise of the “author” — Frederic Malle’s “Editions” with perfumer name prominently displayed, Ramon Monegal’s inkwell-flacons and claim to author-ity and “ink is my perfume” (and his role as an actual novelist just prior to the launch of his line). We’re seeing a “rise” of the author in ways that actually mirror the rise of the importance of other kinds of authors (the author’s name, much less their intention, was not an important component of most artistic traditions until very late in the game).

    As Alyssa mentioned in passing (but I think is VERY important), literary criticism has a much different/complicated relationship to the notion of authorial intention. You could almost describe Burr’s work as what literary folks would call “New Criticism” — a movement in the mid-20th century to look at the text “itself” without reference to authorial intention, etc. But the New Critics, like Burr, can’t help but talk about stuff beyond the text/object/work. But the New Critics gave generations of students the idea of “close reading” which is still practiced today, just among a lot of other practices (cultural, historical, theoretical, etc.).

    In a similar way, I hope that Burr’s criticism isn’t the end point, but a scaffolding for others to build on, modify, and/or reject wholly.


    • Emily, I’m so glad you brought up New Criticism, because I had a whole other essay in my head that was about just that. The rise of New Criticism happened in the wake of World War II, when the GI Bill allowed thousands of young war vets to attend college (and greatly expanded the universities in the process). Its original intention was democratic–if we treat each poem as a separate work of art on its own merit, then anyone, not just the people who have been to fancy prep schools and have the requisite reading under their belts–can learn to appreciate literature.

      However, the New Critics’ own aesthetic and political prejudices very quickly filled the vacuum left by the absence of literary and historical context. Instead of being able to argue for the value of any poem, students were learning to assimilate the arguments put forward by I.A. Richards, Cleanth Brooks, et al.

      It’s hard not to see some parallels between this critical history and Burr’s attempts to free perfume of its commercial context. His OpenSky project, for example, just substituted Burr himself as a brand.

      My problem is with the limitations of that focus, and the way it takes the power of discernment away from the people who are actually using and wearing perfume. (Surely we’ve had enough of that over the years with the way the industry has treated consumers?) And as you note, putting too much faith in the notion of an author (or auteur, if we’re comparing notes with film) does the same thing. Now we’re dependent on the perfumer’s intentions and the way the wearer experiences the perfume is secondary or even “wrong.”

      I can’t wait to hear more about your new project–and to read that book!


      • P.S. I realize you already know the history of New Criticism–just rehearsing it for anyone who might not know, and to bolster my argument. 😉


  12. I do think that people are beginning to pay attention to the Aromatic Arts – outside of the commercialization of perfume. It’s very exciting. I love the scent installations coming out of Europe via R’dam’s Institute for Unstable Media…like Maki Ueda’s deconstruction of Chanel No 5. They also did an installation with Sissel Tolaas and and aroma DJ’s in Amsterdam.

    When people start to appreciate olfaction as a vehicle for expression, then people can start to understand it out of the bottle so to speak.

    Here’s a presentation I did for Pecha Kucha in SF. It’s 20 slides x 20 seconds. Each image is for something olfactory inspired with an emphasis on olfactory/scent installations. One of the links is a video of my presentation. There are links to the artists I mentioned as well as many others.

    I feel like we are experiencing a moment in time when the olfactory arts becomes a recognized art form. When photography became a recognized art form, some people opposed it saying it didn’t fit the standard way of describing art but we’re so beyond it now. What makes scent art so unique is the visceral reaction we have to a certain smell.

    Out of the bottle…the magic cannot be contained.

    My favorite projects have come from collaborations with other artists – either painters, engineers or film makers. I feel like it pushes my own boundaries as a perfumer when I take commerce out of the equation.

    Great topic!


    • Katherine Chan

      Dear Yosh,

      Thank you for introducing to me the Chanel No 5 project of Maki Ueda. This is a Neo-Perfume moment, one where ideas such as deconstruction can bring about new ways of experiencing the world through art that reflects upon our material culture. It’s terrific!



      • Yes, Maki Ueda’s work is amazing, I’ve been following her for awhile. She’s done some very interesting installations and tours, too. She’s on twitter and FB and is friendly!


    • Thank you for these thoughts, and for gathering all these extremely interesting links for us, Yosh! I think you’ve raised something very interesting here that I hadn’t thought much about–the way that valuing olfactory art of the kind you and Katherine are discussing can raise the profile of, and interest in, mainstream perfume.


  13. Caitlin Shortell

    I am overwhelmed with the richness of perspectives posted here. Now we’re talking! I have learned so much and will continue to look in on this discussion. Last night I tried to post the following remarks but was thwarted. I will try again. I come at the questions Alyssa posed from my perspective as a perfume writer and a thinker and someone who can’t resist taking the piss out of aesthetic discussions. I have the utmost respect for the knowledge everyone else has shared here. Here is my initial reaction. For more, please see

    First of all, this discussion inspired an idea but I’m keeping it to myself to write about in the near future. I’m a tease. Now my other thoughts, for what they are worth:
    Subversiveness is a fashionable contemporary way to sex up or valorize an object of study or desire. This includes the way women, people of color, their cultural productions, or perfume are proposed to be valued or included as art or objects worthy of study. I do not believe that perfume is inherently subversive. It is both a product in commerce (object) and a component of a plastic art (event/experience/process/parallax of nostalgia/wait we’re heading right back into its status as commodity now).
    Though subversiveness may be fashionably free sounding, and taxonomies sound oppressive and constraining, taxonomies enable valuation of things and subversion of categories and the ordering of things/objects/subjects are merely moments in a process. Through language and structures, we know and measure and love the pattern of one leaf from another, or a chypre from an oriental. You see the connection of subversiveness to taxonomies in laws aimed at protection of minorities, whose very inclusion or naming in protective laws is argued by some (Wendy Brown) to fix them as victims.
    This is pertinent to perfume in the following way: does perfume seek inclusion into high art, with its attendant critical discourse, when high art itself is just a plaything of the bourgeoisie and we its hangers on? I think we are kidding ourselves when we try to valorize perfume as art or as not commercial or as feminine, because all of those categories (art, commodities, feminine) have the status of chattel. If we wear perfume, own art, or traffic in women, I believe we are still just shilling for the phallus.
    “But any attempt to raise perfume’s prestige as a “pure” art form that depends on making the woman in the room invisible also makes much of perfume’s complex cultural work invisible.”
    I think immediately of the fact that perfume is gender queer, more than just feminine. Think of how most of the leading noses and perfumers in the industry are gay men, and about the great involvement of queers in fashion, and fashioning femininity. Think of the film “Paris is Burning.” I think that the work of bloggers and collaborations with noses to make noses visible has pulled the veil from the complexity of our femininity and our queerness, as both makers and users of perfume. Although I do think that any aim to raise the prestige of perfume as a “pure” artform is generally what I described above, shilling for the phallus, it remains meaningful to makers and users of perfume in innumerable other ways. There are multiverses of the meaning of perfumes.
    Finally, at least for now, my thought on the denigration of an empirical description of notes is this: we are dealing with a world threatened with extinction, and we had better mark and remember the smell of a rose, before regulation and environmental degradation makes a rose as much of a museum piece as so many perfumes we can only encounter in a museum in Versailles. But cultural critics get press by being imperious, or by trashing other ways of writing about things. I prefer to curate by creating relationships for the smeller/reader/viewer. It is more inspiring and less bitchy.
    I don’t have a stake in whether perfume is included in the stable of high art or the stable of beauty product. I am but a lowly consumer. I am relatively powerless in the scheme of things but I am free to decide what fantasy to have about perfume.
    Ultimately, though, since I am not an academic, and not a chemist, I have decided that it is more fruitful to write fiction when I am not fighting for justice.


    • Hi, Cait, I’m so glad the blog came to its senses and let you post. (Here all week folks.)

      As you know from reading the book, I’m fully on board with perfume being genderqueer, gender transformative and more. But I still think we need to take into account the role its played in women’s history and culture. Its simply too big of an omission to skip over. Similarly, I’m less radical than you are when it comes to knocking on the doors of the establishment. I like what Yosh was saying above, though, about the way that olfactory fine art can connect back to and change the perception of perfume. There are definitely other ways to go about all this.

      Eagerly awaiting that fiction!


    • P.S. That Wendy Brown. She is very smart and I agree with some of what she says, but a lot of her work kind of gives me the shivers.


  14. I have been itching to get in on this discussion, and now there are new posts to ponder before I can really engage with all of these compelling comments. I guess I just want to be here for now.

    It’s unanimous: BG, don’t go back to grad school. You don’t need to!
    And now at the risk of—(what would be the perfumista equivalent of having to dodge flying tomatoes?)—at the risk of subjecting myself to a tsunami of spritzes of celebrity scents , I will come out and say I do have an academic career [ducks and covers nose with scarf] and that the relationship between French literature and perfume culture has been the focus of my work for the past several years. I’ve never taken on the question of whether or not perfume is art, but I see how the MAD exhibition complicates the already complicated question. There is so much more I’d like to say, but for the time being, I wanted to drop by and say thank you for the inspiring discussion! Now off to work…


    • Hey, we welcome academics on here! Holly and Emily, who commented above, are both working professors, and Jessica is a working art historian. I did my damnedest to join the profession myself, but it wasn’t meant to be. Much to my current joy and relief. 🙂 I hope you’ll come back and say more about your work. I want to hear it.

      I’m working on a little follow up post, so maybe that will be a more manageable place to comment. Briefly–I think the art vs. not-art conversation isn’t the most interesting one for me. But I do want a better conversation about what perfume is and does and how to communicate that. Seems like we’ve made a pretty interesting start over here with all these fab comments!


      • Thanks, Alyssa! I may have overstated just a wee bit 🙂
        And I think I was carried away by my own image of a perfumista line-up armed with celebrity scents, vaporizer-fingers in the ready position! I’ll be back soon. Ordering a few books *right now* based on some of the responses above. They are indeed fabulous!


    • That project sounds fantastic, Cheryl!


      • Thank you so much, Holly. I’ll try to say a little more about it under Alyssa’s new post. Your wonderful book arrived yesterday and I can’t put it down!


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