Sunday, August 26, 2012

In Praise of Bathing

My first memories of baths date back to early childhood, when my father would deposit me along with my two sisters in the tub for an economy-of-scale suds-up. Yes, we all fit: three girls in four years was what my contraceptively challenged parents—while still undergraduate students—managed to produce during the first three years and six months of a marriage which finally ended around my sixteenth birthday. No need to express condolences: divorce was the best thing that ever happened to my parents' marriage. Aside, of course, from its fruits—mistakes though we may have seemed to be at the time...

Both of my parents have been happily remarried now for many years, much longer than they were married to one another, which would seem to suggest that mutual fertility is not a sufficient basis for a stable marriage, notwithstanding the “grand plan” of whoever—if anyone—devised the preposterous pregnancy scheme. Marriage has of course enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent times, but I suspect that all of the excitement will eventually die down—perhaps in seven years? In the meantime, I think that any couple—straight or gay—interested in tying the proverbial knot (what a metaphor!) should be required first to do a dramatic reading à haute voix of Ionesco's play Délire à Deux. If, having successfully completed that exercise, the happy couple is still intent on taking vows, all I can say is: more power to them! But I digress...

A civil engineer by training and in mindset, my father, in addition to having fun regaling us with rhymes such as “Scrub-a-dub-dub: three girls in a tub!” undoubtedly derived a measure of satisfaction through conserving both time and water by bathing us in this way. Indeed, his area of specialization is none other than dams and irrigation systems!

I have no other clear memories of baths for many, many years. I believe that I took only showers during high school, and I certainly did not take baths while living in the college dormitories. I am not even sure whether the shared bathrooms had anything but shower stalls. That's how little importance bathing in a tub had for me. I do seem vaguely to recall that someone barfed in a bathtub somewhere, during a party at which Koolaid spiked with Everclear was being served. (Was it, perhaps, me?)

Fast forward to today, and here I am a full-fledged bath addict. This is no exaggeration: I do not even feel clean unless I take a full-on soak in a tub, and on those occasions when I am forced to forgo my bathing ritual because of traveling, I await with great anticipation the opportunity to return home where I'll be able to bathe once again in the manner to which I have grown quite accustomed. Mind you, I am not an obsessive-compulsive hand washer, or anything of that kind.

I observed one of those people recently in the bathroom at the library. She was lathering up and scrubbing her arms and hands when I entered a stall, and she was lathering up and scrubbing her arms and hands when I left the stall. I stood briefly next to her in what may have seemed to be a show of hygienic solidarity, a couple of sinks down. But after I had spent maybe ten seconds washing my hands and reached for a paper towel, she was still standing there, lathering up and scrubbing her arms and hands. No, you may rest assured, I am nothing like that.

I suspect, however, that some shower advocates may view me in just that way when I say that I honestly feel that a thorough cleansing can only be accomplished through a bath. Perhaps they, too, will smile politely and walk quickly away—or the internet equivalent: navigate away from this page... I imagine five-minute hot shower takers asking in their minds, Really? You only take baths? in entirely sincere puzzlement over how someone could waste so much time.

I went from nearly no memory of having taken baths to wishing only to take baths. I am by now so habituated to baths, an important part of which involves lying in a supine reclining position, that I consider showers even to be a form of work. Standing up? Really? is my natural rejoinder of puzzlement to the advocate of showers who cannot imagine spending an entire hour—or even half—on a bath.

Having numbered for so many years among those who take only showers, I do of course understand why people opt for them. Yes, it is true: they are quick. And yes, it is true: they work in shared bathroom arrangements such as dorms and houses where not all inhabitants have private bathing quarters. I recall that a fellow living in a house where I was renting a room at one point in the Los Angeles area used to leave the bathtub half-full of dark gray, opaque water, clogged as the drain was with his body hair. No, this is not a joke. Ian was his name.

Two other renters, Ann and Stan, also lived in that house, and so did the landlord and his wife, but the person whom I'll never, ever forget—no matter how old I eventually become, and even if I lapse into an advanced state of senility—is Ian. In addition to being ape-ily hairy, Ian also left a strong acrid odor behind wherever he went—a trail of sillage, if you like—even after having bathed. I think that it is fair to say that anyone who rejects The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth never shared a house with Ian. What would Chanel no 5 smell like on Ian? Honestly, I do not want to know. Come to think of it, although he did not fully bubble up in my mind at the time, Ian was perhaps the ultimate subconscious inspiration for one of my proofs: The case of the stinky guy.

Taking a bath in such a tub, shared with such a fellow as Ian, was never going to happen, for obvious reasons. The whole experience of even wanting to shower in that tub on a day when Ian had already been there was in itself a sheer nightmare, a veritable horror story rivaled only by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. At the time, however, I myself was a showers-only type, so the challenge each morning became to beat Ian to the bathroom. I'd scuffle down the hall as quickly as I could in jammies and rubber flip-flops, mug of French roast in hand, fluffy white robe in tow, to take my shower and scurry back to my room, deeply relieved to have escaped the horror which would now await some other poor unsuspecting soul.

A Question of Culture?

Americans, on the whole, are a part of a showering culture. Baths tend to be reserved for special occasions: to soothe sore muscles in Epsom salts after running a marathon, or to help clear one's congested sinuses with an herbal remedy including eucalyptus and the like... I understand that culture, because I, too, was a part of it for most of my life. Even when I lived in a beautiful house in the mountains and had a private bath, I used it only infrequently as a tub, to alleviate stress. Baths back then were a type of event, not an ordinary way to cleanse myself.

So how in the world did this radical transformation, from a showers-only person to a baths-only person, take place? Interestingly enough, the changes in my attitudes toward showers and baths, like the circumstances of my birth, were entirely a matter of chance and, some might even say, negligence. I discovered that an apartment which I had rented with a one-year lease had a bathtub with a malfunctioning shower head. The nozzle barely dribbled any water at all, but when I pointed this out, the skinflint landlord insisted that it was supposed to function like that.

Everyone, I trust, has run into one or more of those “special” landlords who insist that everything is exactly as it should be. Whether I liked it or not, my only real option for cleansing myself during that year became taking a bath. What I found, hundreds of baths later was that I actually enjoy taking baths. Slowly but surely my entire perspective on bathing ended up transforming to the point where I never, ever shower at home anymore. I am so much a bather at this point that after moving to the house in which I now reside, I did not even bother to hang up the shower curtain and rod until some house guests arrived!

Ironic though it may seem, it is nonetheless true: as a direct result of a cheapskate landlord, today I feel deprived whenever I find myself in a shower-only scenario. This happens when I travel to a place where hotels either do not come equipped with bathtubs, or they do but for one reason or another it is infeasible to render them acceptably clean. I am very picky about bathtubs: they must be spotless in order for me to soak my body in one. I realize that this may make me sound a bit like the woman in the library bathroom compulsively lathering and scrubbing her arms and hands, but I do here confess that I will not bathe in a hotel bathtub which I have not scrupulously inspected for cleanliness.

Not a problem in a couple of parts of the world, above all, Japan, the bathing capital of the universe, where spotless baththubs—and sencha tea centers—are de rigueur! I have also often been pleasantly surprised by the accommodations in Europe, especially Italy. Europeans, while not quite obsessed with bathing—as the Japanese truly are, to their credit, I hasten to add—do seem to appreciate that a good bath tub is just as essential as a good bed. Or a bidet! Some of the most beautiful bath tubs and bathrooms I've ever encountered were found in Italy and in Spain.

I never intended to become a bather, but it happened, and now I honestly cannot imagine forgoing what has become my bath ritual. Along the way, I became a major consumer of bath products, and thanks to the ridiculous biannual sales at Bath & Body Works and The Body Shop, I could probably go for years without needing to buy anything. Every time I consider the possibility of moving, in fact, I realize that I need to decrease my gross shipping weight before doing so. I did give away about a thousand books last year, and I no longer buy either CDs or DVDs, but despite having skipped the sales at BBW and TBS, I still have an impressive array of bath and shower gels, scrubs, and lotions. And then, of course, there are the colognes and perfumes.

Am I “hoarding” bath products? I think not, because the variety is very important to me. A day when I wish to take a citrus bath is not at all like a day when I'd rather soak in lavender or jasmine or cherry blossom or... the list goes on and on. I delight in selecting which bath bubbles to run under the faucet, and I coordinate scrubs and soaps and even hair products so as to complement the scented water. As a part of my ritual I also apply Borghese Fango mud to my face, and I may actually hold the record for the most tonnage of that product consumed by any individual person.

Deontology versus Teleology: Showers versus Baths

I suspect that eighteenth-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, probably the most famous deontologist in history, preferred showers. According to Kant, morality is a matter of duty: it is not because of the benefits which one can expect to derive from doing the right thing that one should do the right thing. No, consequences have no relevance, morally speaking, in Kant's view. You should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do!

Immanuel Kant, author of The Metaphysics of Morals 

Americans certainly seem, for the most part, to regard showering as a duty to execute, not a pleasure to enjoy—except insofar as removing dirt can be a source of relief. One of my sisters, a deeply entrenched shower advocate—who perhaps not uncoincidentally also has a dog—insists that baths increase the incidence of urinary tract infections. She once expressed extreme distaste for my predilection for baths in these terms:

How can you stand to sit there in a pool of dirty water?!

To which I replied:

The water is not dirty, BECAUSE I BATHE!

I do not doubt that a person who takes only showers over many years with nary a bath would indeed create a dirty pool of water just like Ian, the fellow whose sole distinction in my memory bank is to have been the stinkiest person I ever knew. What else did he do? I have no idea.

Anecdotally, I can report that the first time I bathed HRH Emperor Oliver, the bath water was indeed rather dark and gray. He had never been dipped in a tub throughout his entire life, why? Because cats have superlative personal hygiene and shun bodies of water larger than the volume of space which their body occupies.

Since his retirement, it has become necessary to provide some bathing assistance to The Emperor now and then, as a result of which I have become convinced that in fact all cats hold within their minds a quasi-Jungian “collective unconsciousness” fear of drowning. I suspect that it is the image of small kittens being mercilessly terminated “with extreme prejudice” in a pond by some illiterate and sadistic hick which may surface inchoately—to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the intellectual capacity of the cat—when they first face the specter of a bath.

Happily, dozens of baths later, The Emperor has learned that drowning at the Divine Feline Assisted Living Retirement Community is not an option. It's not going to happen, so long as his chief of staff is standing by. Having largely overcome his initial reluctance to bathe, The Emperor today enjoys the benefits of hydrotherapy so dear to bath lovers more generally and especially helpful to those such as he, who suffer from diabetes and debilitating neuropathy in their legs, feet, and toes. But I digress...

HRH Emperor Oliver relaxes after a bath and blowdry

The Bath-Perfume Connection

While bathing recently—one day in satsuma, the next in grapefruit and citron, the third in lavender and chamomile, and yesterday in Fresh Citron de Vigne shower gel—it occurred to me that the attitudes of many people toward perfume can be mapped onto their attitudes toward bathing along two different axes. First, it seems clear that some, perhaps many, people think of perfume use in purely functional terms, just as they think about showering.

Consider, for example, the “panty dropper” threads which get started over and over again by new visitors to fragrance community websites. This may seem risible to veteran perfumistas, who regard themselves as having a higher appreciation of perfume, often as an art form, but the reality seems to be that most consumers use perfume as a way of increasing their own attractability to persons with whom they may become romantically involved.

I myself found this factoid rather unbelievable, but in a fashion magazine a couple of years ago, in one of the relatively rare features on perfume, the statistic was reported that the number one reason why French women use perfume is to attract a mate! That was a sobering statistic to me, generally inclined to believe as I am that the French tend to be leaps and bounds above Americans in terms of sophistication. Meaning, of course, that the statistic for Americans could only be worse.

There is another axis along which perfume appreciation can be mapped, and this one does not point toward the same rather self-congratulatory conclusion, that most perfume users are philistines and only elite perfumistas appreciate the artistry of vrai parfum and the work of “olfactory artists,” to invoke here Chandler Burr's term for accomplished perfumers. This second axis is that of pure sensory experience, which does not seem to me to be relevantly distinct in the case of bathing and perfume use. In other words, thinking about perfume use in purely phenomenological terms, as a subjective experience, the use of perfume may be much closer to bathing than perfumistas ordinarily suppose—unless, of course, they happen to be bath addicts like me.

One reason why I love bathing is because I am enveloped in the process not only by warm water, but also by beautiful scents. This leads back to the question, perhaps vexing to some, whether perfume really is different in any fundamental way from other toiletries, to wit: bath and shower gel, soaps, scrubs, lotions, oils, etc. There are more and less sophisticated toiletries, to be sure, and people may use them and appreciate them to varying degrees. But let us consider the case of bath and shower gels which have been scented with perfumes which we ourselves already affirm as excellent.

Is it any less of an experience of perfume to smell it wafting off the water or off the skin of a freshly bathed and lotioned body than it is to spritz on the perfume itself? In terms of the pure olfactory experience of the perfume, I cannot for the life of me figure out why one of these forms of perfume experience should differ from the other. The truth, it seems to me, is that we appreciate perfume, above all, for the pleasure it provides.

Read all the perfume reviews you like, you will find that the fundamental judgments derive nearly exclusively from an answer to the question whether the wearer enjoys the experience of the perfume being reviewed. That is the bottom line. Reviews invariably circle back to the reviewer: specifically, the effect that the perfume has upon the wearer.

Is this true of the nonperfumic arts? Do we evaluate the quality of a poem or a piece of music or a film by describing their effects upon us? Perhaps on some level and in part, but only a small portion of a review of any object of art explicitly references the experiencer. The rest points outward to the object itself.

In contrast, in the case of perfume, everything turns on the subjective experience, and the very terms which one selects in attempting to convey one's experience point back to the wearer. This seems to me to provide grounds for skepticism about the status of perfume as an art. People who love perfume would naturally like there to be objective truths about the object of their love, but the reason why even “the experts” do not agree, it seems to me, is that their reviews always say much more about them than about the ostensible object of their critique.

The object under review in the case of perfume is tied up essentially with the reviewer, because everything which he or she consciously perceives is determined by facts about him or her, not facts about the perfume. In addition to having entirely different personal histories, human beings are differentially sensitive to all of the various components of any perfume, which is how and why people with vast experience in sniffing perfumes and familiarity with even thousands of them can radically disagree about a question as fundamental as whether it is any good.

What matter in evaluations of perfume are not objective facts about the creation—what particular chemical substances were used to create a certain perceptual quality—but our subjective reception of it conjoined with our personal tastes. In fact, tastes appear to do most of the evaluative work. We like this or that note: patchouli, tuberose, benzoin, etc. We dislike this or that note: rubber, cumin, pineapple, etc. Therefore, if a perfume features those things which we happen to like and we also happen to like their conjunction, then that alone will suffice to make our experience of it a positive one. “Your mileage may vary,” but to us, which is all that matters in our own evaluation of a perfume, it ends up seeming like either a masterpiece or a disaster or, more often, somewhere in between those two extremes, based largely upon what we happen to like.

Now, one might reply that people's tastes in art vary as well, and this is true. The difference, however, is that in the case of perfume, tastes do the bulk of the work of evaluation. Everything turns upon individual tastes and preferences. To praise a perfume is to enjoy the experience of wearing it. This is why the more a reviewer writes, the more he reveals—not about the perfume but about himself.

Setting to one side all of the vapid chatter about art, I must own that when I make a judgment about perfume, the bottom line is that a good or bad perfume to my nose is rather simple to define. I derive pleasure from the former and not from the latter. This is not an objective judgment and reveals the folly involved in issuing imperious decrees about which perfumes are masterpieces and which are disasters. 

In order to do such a thing, one would first have to assume the exalted status of one's own subjective values and tastes, in addition to one's heightened ability to perceive all of the many components of a perfume. Who can make such a claim, in complete sincerity? I know of no one, to be perfectly frank. Indeed, the two requirements would appear to be mutually exclusive. Moreover, a great or accomplished nose is probably not the best person to seek out for advice on which perfumes to buy. Why? Because your less than great nose will not detect the same things and to the same degree. In other words, you will smell what is essentially a different perfume than did he.

What I have learned about perfume through reflecting upon bathing while bathing is that pleasure, my fragrant friends, is the bottom line. There is no more and no less to perfume than that. We may, in our vanity, wish to follow the lead of thinkers such as the nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who distinguished higher from lower pleasures, claiming that

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied;
better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

It is unclear from this pithy little adage whether it is supposed to be better to be a pig satisfied or a fool satisfied, but I suspect that Mill was not a vegetarian and may well have joined his compatriots in repasts frequently featuring offal.

John Stuart Mill, author of Utilitarianism

In any case, what seems indisputable to me is that what we may wish to honorifically label "olfactory art" is in fact an exceptionally pleasurable scent. It may be complex and unfurl in waves so as to induce in us olfactory delight. It may surprise us and lead us down new paths of our thoughts and evoke memories of times past and things lost. Experiencing perfume is a sensual process which begins with our nose and ends in our brain, but the measure of a good perfume is only the pleasure which it provides.

What does hedonism imply?

Just as people may adopt a certain attitude toward cleansing their body, viewing it as a necessity, a duty to be carried out, so, too, do consumers sometimes become distracted by extrinsic factors. They may become concerned by price, status (is it niche—or expensive—and therefore, presumably, refined enough?), or even the celebrities or models suggested or implied to be attached to the perfume through advertising. In view of the size of marketing budgets for many perfumes, it may well be the case that most consumers select the bottles which end up in their boudoir by such olfactorily irrelevant factors.

Such perfumes, once owned, may be spritzed on without stopping to smell the perfume, so to to speak. I see this, too, in the reviews written by many self-styled perfumistas who report quick impressions and often quite dismissively. Did the reviewer give the perfume the benefit of a full wear—or two? Was the experience interrupted, mediated, or curtailed by the wearer's memory of the experience of another perfume in the past? Can we experience a perfume as an isolated thing in itself? Probably not, given that our minds are not a blank slate—and if they were we wouldn't be able to make sense of anything anyway.

The famous deontologist Immanuel Kant never married, nor did he ever leave his hometown of Königsberg. Small wonder, then, that he had so much time for cogitation and the composition of extremely lengthy sentences. Naturally, he had something to say on this matter as well. Kant rejected the possibility of naïve empiricismthe pure, unmediated apprehension of realityin these terms (translated from the German):

Percepts without concepts are empty; concepts without percepts are blind.

In some ways, bathing provides a superlative opportunity to reflect upon a perfume, as one is not surrounded by all of the usual distractions which can make it difficult to focus upon the olfactory experience itself. How often do we wear a perfume in the way in which we listen to a piece of music or watch a film? True, music is often playing in the background while we do something else, but when we attend a concert, we are there specifically to listen to the music, though we may of course be distracted by such annoyances as audience members who cough or talk during the performance. The same is true of our experience of films and may help to explain why many people today only watch films in the (quiet) privacy of their homes, made possible by the existence of so many new technologies in a series which began with videotapes and appears to be culminating in wireless media streaming.

Even perfumistas who exalt perfumery as an art may not actually dedicate any independent time to the experience of perfume. They may use perfume in the way in which they play background music while engaged in activities very different from what one does while sitting in rapt attention at a concert. Both music and perfume are nonrepresentational, but music is at least sometimes capable of capturing our undivided attention. Even further removed is the experience of a film, which, being representational, can convey a message of one sort or another. In the case of perfume, only one question really makes much sense: Does the perfume provide pleasure? Do beautiful scents fill you with joy?

One implication of this bath-inspired way of looking at perfume would seem to be that the provenance of a scent is irrelevant to one's experience of it. Perhaps this is why I don't care who allegedly made the first perfume in the history of the world to combine certain notes together. It doesn't matter. What matters is that they were brought together by someone—anyone—to produce a perfume capable of inducing in me the sense of pleasure I feel upon donning it. We may tell all the stories we like about perfumes, but our stories are no more and no less personal confessions, in the end.

I leave you now to soak in these ideas and look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter. As for me, I do believe that it's time for a bath!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Are there Principles of Perfume Criticism? Or are judgments about perfumes all and only a matter of subjective taste?

Many perfumistas assume that perfumery is obviously an art and that only philistines continue to regard perfume as a toiletry on the same level as mouthwash and deodorant. We know the names of the perfumers who created our favorite elixirs, and we regard some of them in a manner befitting of great artists.

It may seem undeniable that perfumery is an art, once one begins to reflect upon and understand what is involved in conceiving of and producing a perfume. At first, there is nothing but a bunch of random ingredients, and then suddenly there is a masterpiece. Who but an artist could effect such a magnificent change, equivalent to a grand creation act?

Jean-Claude Elléna

Some perfumers, including Jean-Claude Ellénahave published reflections on their own work in book form. Others, including Andy Tauer, offer through their blog entries an intimate glimpse into the life of a perfumer. The way these perfumers regard their own vocation seems very similar if not identical to the perspective of artists in other realms on their own work.

Andy Tauer

I for one am fully prepared to label such perfumers as artists. Do I think that all perfumers are artists? Frankly, no, I do not. I believe that many of the people who produce fragrances under the auspices of huge corporations are industrial chemists who accept assignments to do as their employer decrees, creating the sort of scents which the company would like its products to bear, and permitting the employer to critique and tweak those scents. All of this is done within the bounds of a strict budget fully determined by the profit margin expected from launching and marketing a certain product in a certain way to a certain group of consumers.

There have been industrial chemists working in such a capacity for precisely so long as there have been scented products: laundry detergent, furniture polish, bathroom cleaning products, and also such items as lotions, shampoo and hair conditioner, diapers and baby wipes. 

All of these products have scents and those scents are produced by chemists, who can be regarded as perfumers, in some tenuous sense, but not in the way in which Jean-Claude Elléna and Andy Tauer and all other independent perfumers who run their own houses seem to be dedicated to the production of beautiful perfumes.

Creative directors such as Serge Lutens and Keiko Mecheri work in close collaboration with professional perfumers to produce compositions which realize the vision and reflect the values of the creative director. No less than are salaried chemists working for large corporations, such contracted perfumers are the subordinate employees of their creative director when they are hired for a project, whether a single perfume or an entire series of launches.

I am certainly prepared to assert that figures such as Serge Lutens and Keiko Mecheri are artists whose vision is elaborated through their enlistment of people technically adept at producing perfumes. Are the people who work with such creative directors also artists? The line become finer and finer it seems to me and depends ultimately upon the perfumer's own role in a particular case. If the perfumer is informing the director's aesthetic choices in a significant way, then perhaps he or she should be regarded as a co-creator in the perfume production process and, therefore, also an artist. Christopher Sheldrake would be one example.

Are “creative directors” such as Britney Spears and Sarah Jessica Parker and Paris Hilton and Queen Latifah and Mariah Carey and Jennifer Aniston and Kate Moss and Heidi Klum and Halle Berry and Madonna—and all of the other many celebrities who have launched perfumes or even entire series of perfumes bearing their name—also artists in the sense in which Serge Lutens and Keiko Mecheri seem to be?

This seems dubious to me, in large part because the finished products tend to fit into certain market molds and are probably more reflective of fashions and trends than of the “creative director's” vision. Certainly the perfumes produced in these people's names have met with their approval, in some sense, but whether or not they are actively engaged in the process, and to what extent, will differ from case to case. I myself do not consider any performing artist to be an “olfactory artist” simply for having launched a perfume.

One reason for denying that celebrities are artists when it comes to perfumery is that their intention in launching fragrances seems diaphanously to be not only to make money, but also to further extend and promote their own fame. This primary motive distinguishes celebrity creative directors from those such as Serge Lutens and Keiko Mecheri, whose intention appears to be to produce excellent perfume—in addition, of course, to making money.

Anyone who looks anywhere—whether among the niche and independent, or the mainstream designer and celebrity houses—for pure, non-mercenary intentions in today's perfume industry will be disappointed, it seems to me. The distinction between artists, on the one hand, and businesspeople and hacks, on the other, cannot be that the former have no interest in earning money from what they do. Artists, too, need to support themselves, so wishing to make money cannot be the deciding factor. In addition, entrepreneurs such as Laurice Rahmé of Bond no 9 appear to enjoy not only creating excellent perfumes but also running successful businesses.

What is missing in the case of the non-artists, those who could just as easily be running a supermarket chain as a perfume house, is a priority given to producing a certain kind of perfume. It seems clear to me that many launches are crassly mercenary, as are many reformulations. Those perfumes are a cause for cynicism about the status of perfumery as an art, at least as it is practiced in many contexts.

Companies such as Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret offer useful examples. Such “houses”, if you will, regularly generate new perfumes and nearly immediately discontinue them, to the disappointment of the consumers who have come to appreciate them. Consider the Parfums Intimes launch by Victoria's Secret of a series of quite decent fragrances in 2009.

These perfumes were among the best—as far as I've sniffed—ever produced by Victoria's Secret. They were evidently a market flop, however, and were abruptly discontinued not too long after they had been launched—I believe that it was less than two years. Why were these perfumes discontinued? In all likelihood because Victoria's Secret customers are not, generally speaking, concerned so much with having a refined perfumic quality in their fragrances. Many of them, not being perfumistas, were probably not prepared to pay the MSRP of the Parfums Intimes, which was initially $59 for 50ml. The price was lowered somewhat after the initial launch, and two further members of the series, more in line with the fruity-floral tastes of the typical Victoria's Secret customer, were added to the original four launches, but these measures appear to have been too little, too late.

Many Victoria's Secret customers are perfectly happy with the Secret Garden series, the non-prestige eaux de toilette which carry a regular retail price of $12 for 30ml. During sale periods, which occur many times each year, these (needless to say highly synthetic) fragrances can be had for less than $5 a bottle.

Despite the fact that the Parfums Intimes perfumes were really quite good, relative to the Victoria's Secret standard line—and even their other prestige fragrances, such as the Dream Angels series—they were discontinued. Success on the market is the only criterion for perfume survival, and this is why such a company seems to me to be primarily a business, one which happens to offer fragrances, among many other products, above all, in their case, lingerie. For Victoria's Secret, perfume is but an accessory to their primary output: bras and underwear. Accessories are optional and can be changed or eliminated as soon as they prove not to be profit-worthy.

The perfumers who work for companies such as Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works seem to me to be for the most part industrial chemists, although on occasion a famous nose is contracted for a special launch. Whether a particular perfumer is an artist or perhaps more of a chemist or technician will depend upon that person's approach and orientation. Andy Tauer has a Ph.D. In chemistry, but that has not stopped him from being an artist. The question becomes: what are the criteria to apply in order to decide who is right and who is wrong when not everyone unanimously agrees about the value of a particular perfumer's output?

Is Perfumery an Art Like the Others?

In a recent comment here at the salon regarding the status of perfumery at the end of a post on the pre-Socratic philosophers Anaximander and Anaximenes, Christos (of Memory of Scent) posed the following challenge to those who would exalt perfumery as an art:

As far as art, I really do not think that everything can be turned into art. To turn back to the Greeks, they had defined what art is and of course new media have added the moving image in the form of cinema, video, performance to the list. But olfaction has always been there since the beginning of the human civilization. Where is the theory behind it to make it a real art? Of course there are levels of creation and not all perfumers are made equal but I need to be convinced that a common language to express and critique perfume can be created before I believe it is true art.
---Christos (Memory of Scent), July 30, 2012 

The more I reflect upon these incisive words, the more I recognize that there really does seem to be a problem here. Perfume critics and reviewers all seem to have very declarative and forceful opinions about the perfumes which they sniff, but are they ever really offering any genuine aesthetic criticism? Are they doing anything more than expressing their personal likes and dislikes in the manner in which one may express one's personal taste by praising or denouncing anchovies or or a certain brand of black licorice?

My skepticism about this question was further piqued by Chandler Burr's repeated allusion to Alberto Morillas as an “olfactory artist” during the revelation of the identity of S01E02, the second episode of the first Untitled Series, which turned out to be Thierry Mugler's Cologne. I correctly guessed the perfumer's identity in a post at Open Sky in mid-July 2012, and the name of the perfume in a post at Fragrantica, but my reasons for guessing Morillas were certainly not Burr's reason for substituting the locution 'olfactory artist' where one might normally use the term 'perfumer'.

Burr is evidently keen to underscore the status of perfumery as an art to people who might not yet already believe, but I wonder whether he thought through the implications of referring to Morillas repeatedly as an “olfactory artist” during the discussion with Katie Puckrick about S01E02. By saying that Morillas is an “olfactory artist,” not just a perfumer, is Burr not implying that only some perfumers are olfactory artists? In other words, by making this distinction, Burr appears to be claiming that all olfactory artists are perfumers, but some perfumers are not olfactory artists.

The curious thing about this distinction is that Morillas is precisely the sort of perfumer whom one might consider to be an industry hack, someone who has worked for dozens of different companies on many different projects and within the bounds of tight budget constraints imposed upon the projects and according to the specifications of the client. Certainly this sounds much more like a professional craftsman or technician than an artist, at least how we understand that word today.

In the contemporary world, fine artists are typically distinguished from the sorts of people who work for companies in ways intended to increase their profits. So the people who write jingles for television commercials are not generally regarded as poets—at least not for this particular type of textual output. The people who design ads for the weekly grocery circular are not usually regarded as visual artists—though they may of course be in the privacy of their own homes or in other spheres. The people who write music for movies may or may not be regarded as great composers—depending upon what else they do and also the quality of the movies for which they produce scores.

On analogy, the perfumers who compose for Bvlgari, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, Cartier, Giorgio Armani, Kenzo, Thierry Mugler, et al., are clearly helping those companies to fill in their perfume portfolio, so to speak. The paramount goal in hiring a perfumer is to make money, not to produce works of art.

A recent article in Daily Finance, "Behind the Spritz," shows the somewhat alarming breakdown of the cost of a mainstream bottle of perfume with a MSRP of $100. Without delving into the details here, suffice it to say that the bulk of the money is poured into the management and presentation of the product, with only a pittance poured into the actual bottle (which, at $6, typically costs three times more than the juice inside, averaging $2!). All of the effort put into distribution, presentation, and sales is made in order to get the bottle onto as many people's vanity trays as possible, what is naturally facilitated through the use of advertisements which seduce consumers into believing that this is the perfume to use.

What is curious about the identification of Alberto Morillas as an olfactory artist rather than a commissioned perfumer is that he is famous precisely for having created perfumes which have earned billions of dollars for companies in the perfume industry. But does this not suggest that Morillas is closer to a best-selling author than he is to a writer of timeless literary works? Best-selling authors abound at any moment in time—there is, after all, always a best seller list, so someone must be on it! A big part of these writers' success is due to the aggressive promotion of their works by publishers. In reality, only a tiny fraction of even wildly popular and financially successful authors achieve posthumous renown. In the case of perfumery, posthumous renown would seem to be virtually impossible, because perfume, like its creator, eventually evaporates away.

A further problem with the “Alberto Morillas has earned the perfume industry billions of dollars” rationale for labeling him an “olfactory artist” is that, by that criterion, if Britney Spears keeps on her current fragrance launch trajectory, she, too, will one day be hailed as an “olfactory artist”!

Now, one could say that Chandler Burr is simply attempting to shore up his credentials as the curator of olfactory art at the Museum of Art and Design (in New York), which is a cynical but not unrealistic view of the matter. Another tack to take would be to say that in fact all perfumers are olfactory artists, but this seems quite dubious to me, for the reasons given above. It seems quite clear that some persons working in the perfume industry and directly engaged in the creation of new fragrances are consciously catering to and even helping companies to shape certain market niches, in part through the use of marketing surveys and studies, among other techniques.

There are obviously people creating sweet laundry and shampoo and conditioner scents, all of which is a part of what might be termed the “personal hygiene turn” currently under way in perfumery. I wonder whether the house of Clean was not in some ways visionary, if not revolutionary, in predicting what sorts of scents people would be ready to buy in the aftermath of the post-Angel wave of cloying sweet patchouli perfumes. There is only so much sweet patchouli and skank that people are willing to tolerate: at some point they just want to smell clean.

Now, we can call anything we like by any name we choose. But the point Christos made so insightfully is that there is a distinction between an art which is actually susceptible of criticism and one which is not. This leads us directly to the core question: are there or can there be principles of perfume criticism, or are judgments of perfumes all and only a matter of taste?

What might principles of perfume criticism look like?

Here are a few candidates which one might consider from a random selection of entries in The Holey[sic] Book (misleadingly published under the title Perfumes: The A-Z Guide), by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez:

  • Longevity and Projection
  • Weirdness
  • Accuracy in naming
  • Price
  • Ability to evoke the memory of some place visited or thing experienced by Turin during some period of his life

As regular visitors to the salon de parfum are fully aware, I am of the opinion that the negative reviews in The Holey[sic] Book are, in a phrase: 

solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short 

Overeducated readers will immediately recognize that I have indeed invoked, and not without reason, Thomas Hobbes' famous phrase for describing life in the state of nature, that is, before the establishment of civil society.

Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan

Many—in fact, most—of the negative “reviews” in The Holey[sic] Book are essentially outbursts devoid of any propositional content, so it's not even possible to agree or disagree with the authors. One can only grunt in response—whether in satisfaction or out of exasperation.

Turin and Sanchez certainly have strong opinions, and, like trash talk television pundits, they are not afraid to express them. However, I do not believe that their texts reflect anything even approaching principles of aesthetic criticism. Why not? you may ask. Because their very own criteria change from review to review. This would seem to imply that their judgments are based not on principles but personal taste and loyalties.

So, for example, longevity and projection are good, if the perfume is already liked by the authors. Longevity and projection are bad, if the perfume is disliked. Longevity and projection, therefore, cannot be criteria for distinguishing between good and bad perfumes. (Compare the reviews of Guerlain Insolence edp [5 stars] and Keiko Mecheri Loukhoum [1 star] to see this.)

Again, some perfumes are blasted for claiming to be what they are not. In other cases, such inaccuracy is taken in stride, because the authors already happen to like what they sniff. Truth in naming is therefore not a criterion. (Compare the reviews of Ambra di Venezia [4 stars] and Balmain Ambre Gris [2 stars] to see this.)

Some perfumes are dismissed as substandard for their synthetic materials; others are hailed as masterpieces for the same. Glorious “abstract” florals become “skeletal” when they figure in a perfume disliked by the authors. (Compare the reviews of Esteé Lauder Beyond Paradise [5 stars] and Bond no 9 Fashion Avenue [2 stars] to see this.)

Candyfloss appears at times to be a bad thing, but in perfumes praised by the authors, such as By Kilian Love, created by Calice Becker, suddenly candyfloss is a good thing. (Compare the reviews of Vera Wang Princess [1 star] and By Kilian Love [4 stars] to see this.)

But even having been created by a perfumer praised by the authors themselves as “great” cannot save a perfume which they happen to hate. Dominique Ropion is said in some places to be a great perfumer, yet he created perfumes upon which vicious invective is heaped, above all: Givenchy Amarige and Lalique Le Parfum, each of which amazingly garners one star.

Again, the “great” Alberto Morillas created Estée Lauder Pleasures, considered a masterpiece by the authors, but also Versace Bright Crystal, which garners one star and is denounced as a “nasty floral” and “hideously screechy.” Those four words, in fact, exhaust the full content of the review of this perfume by the “great” Alberto Morillas. 

Bvlgari Blv Notte, also by Morillas, is criticized by Turin thus:

incompletely worked out, as if the perfumer had hurried to the deadline and submitted a pile of Post-its instead of a manuscript.

Of Carolina Herrera 212, yet another Morillas creation, Sanchez writes (and this is the entirety of the "review"):
harsh floral. Like getting lemon juice in a paper cut.

Being a “great” perfumer clearly does not mean, according to the authors of The Holey[sic] Book, that one creates great perfumes. Another example: the “great” Mark Buxton is the explanation for the four-star rating of low-brow juice factory perfume Salvador Dali Laguna. Unfortunately, he was somehow “throttled” to produce the two-star Linari perfume Angelo di Fiume, which, according to Turin, “has little to say and takes ages saying it.”

Even the perfumes of Buxton's own eponymous house are dismissed as two-star mediocrity. But it's his house, for heaven's sake! If this implies (as it seems to) that Buxton is both the perfumer and the creative director, then how could the “great” perfumer make such aesthetic mistakes?

Sophia Grojsman, also repeatedly identified as a great perfumer, somehow managed to produce the one-star disaster Estée Lauder Spellbound, denounced in these genteel terms: “Powerfully cloying and nauseating. Trails for miles. Frightens horses. Gets worse.” The two-word mnemonic which they confer upon this perfume is “medicated treacle.”

If Grojsman is one of the greatest living perfumers (which I do believe to be the case), then how did she manage to produce such a horrid perfume according to the authors of The Holey[sic] Book? That is the question, my fragrant friends.

The identification of so many cases of great perfumers producing allegedly nightmarish perfumes raises two intertwined and rather vexing problems:

  • Should we believe the reviewers or the perfumers when they come into radical conflict with one another about the quality of a perfume? Clearly the perfumers do not regard themselves as having produced dreck and swill. Clearly they do not regard their own creations as “hilariously bad” or “unconscionably hideous.” If the authors' opinions diverge radically from the perfumer's own—say, in a case such as Mona di Orio (may she rest in peace), whom should we, the readers, believe?
  • Why, moreover, should we believe Turin and Sanchez when they say anything? If they are right that the perfumers whom they proclaim to be great are truly great, then how could they produce such awful perfumes? And if they are wrong in their identification of great perfumers, then might they not also be wrong in their judgment of perfumes?

I would like to press this argument a bit further to make absolutely clear precisely what it is that I am saying.

First, there is no sense in which Turin and Sanchez have more expertise about perfume than do perfumers themselves. Strikingly, I recall that somewhere in The Holey[sic] Book, Turin even confesses to having been a failure as a creative director at some point in his personal history of perfume.

Second, there is no sense in which the authors can be said have more passion for perfume than people who have dedicated their very lives to its creation.

Therefore, since knowledge of and enthusiasm for perfumery are the only alleged qualifications of the authors, there is no reason to prioritize their opinions above those of the perfumers whose creations they vilify.

Alas, human beings are like sheep, who from time immemorial have been following the lead of whoever steps forward with a megaphone and yells louder than everyone else. This is how and why the opinions of Turin and Sanchez have reverberated and echoed throughout the world wide web as insecure acolytes parrot their words in an effort to show that, yes, they agree with “the experts”. Sadly, many reviewers have also adopted their snarky, boorish style, mistaking nastiness for incisive critique.

The Question of Credentials and Credibility

The question of credentials was taken up recently in an excellent piece by Bryan Ross at From Pyrgos. Again, the crux of the issue can be summed up in a single question: Why should we believe that what Turin and Sanchez have to say about a given perfume has any objective validity whatsoever?

As I read through The Holey[sic] Book, with little knowledge about either author, I occasionally bumped into remarks which piqued my interest about who they were and what they had done to become world renowned perfume experts. Consider these words written by Sanchez:

in her review of Ellie D Ellie:

Sometimes even the professional reviewer is baffled by too much information.

in her review of Bond no 9 Fashion Avenue:

I'm always sure that some passionate botanist will phone me up on the subject of one of these skeletal florals one day and howl, 'You moron, it's obviously linden,' and my career will end, or something like that.

I often disagree with her most basic judgments about perfumes and believe that some of her reviews contain factual errors (Bond no 9 Little Italy is marred by a big dose of civet???), but when I read the above, self-referential remarks, which clearly indicate that Sanchez is a perfume reviewer with a “career” at stake, I immediately googled her name to find out where she had been gainfully employed as a perfume writer before hooking up with Turin. Was she perhaps a staff reviewer for the Los Angeles Times? Who knew?

In fact, I was unable to locate a single piece of published writing by Ms. Sanchez pre-dating The Holey[sic] Book or any evidence whatsoever that her “career” ever had anything to do with perfume. Although she is sometimes referred to by groupies (in forum threads at various sites) as a “journalist”, I have also been unable to determine which news service or paper she ever worked for—if any—as I could not locate a single by-line for her anywhere.

I imagine that in centuries past, people got away with these sorts of shenanigans far more easily. Having once shamelessly promoted one's self through the use of patently false claims, perhaps no one could complain so long as the marketing campaign had achieved its aim, to catapult the liar to fame.

Without delving into the question of the morality of duplicity and deception, in the age of the internet, publishing the above sorts of misleading—if not flatly false—statements is highly imprudent. The fact is that, as information has become more public, it has also become widely accessible. People who are writers have publications. “Professional perfume reviewers” have been paid to write perfume reviews. If those supposed publications cannot be located anywhere, then they never existed.

Here is an excerpt from a definition in Webster's Third International Unabridged Dictionary:

fraud = an instance of an act of trickery or deceit, especially when involving misrepresentation... a person who is not what he pretends to be

Turning now to Turin, he appears to have attempted unsuccessfully to resurrect someone else's vibrational theory of olfaction. Okay, fine. What does that have to do with aesthetic judgment? Remarkably, Turin himself owns that his nose is “average.” So why in the world should anyone care what he thinks of any perfume? Even if it should turn out to be the case that his pet theory of olfaction ends up being vindicated—against all probability, it seems—this would not have any bearing whatsoever on his status of as an aesthetic critic.

One might wonder whether the credential situation is any better for Chandler Burr, actually. He became famous in the perfume world in part by writing, ironically enough, a book about Luca Turin! The story of a frustrated scientist's obsession with and desperate quest to win a Nobel Prize? Really? Perhaps The Emperor of Scent will succeed in elucidating the source and full extent of Turin's megalomania, but I must say that, although it is on my reading list (I picked up a copy from Amazon for $2), it's not very high up in the queue.

We find ourselves in a situation here, my fragrant friends, where the “experts” are appointing themselves and decreeing who “olfactory artists” are and which perfumes are masterpieces and which are disasters. But what, exactly, are the criteria being used to make these pronouncements? The answer, I'm afraid, is that in each and every case, the criteria are no more and no less than the subjective tastes of those making the judgments, their alleged qualifications being the sheer gumption to don the emperor's new (nonexistent) robes!

What if “The Experts” Disagree?

I was delighted to learn that Chandler Burr had selected Prada Infusion d'Iris as the first perfume for the Untitled series, S01E01. Why? Because I hoped that Burr might thus be able to help to mend some of the damage undoubtedly done to Daniela Andrier's name by the caustic condemnation in The Holey[sic] Book of the entire perfumic output of the house of Prada. (Honestly, if I were an attorney, the slander/libel of perfumers throughout The Holey[sic] Book would be a class action suit waiting to happen.)

But here's the problem, for the question at hand: the few people (essentially two, if we simply admit what by now seems obvious, that Tania is no more and no less than Luca's rib) who have put themselves forth as aesthetic experts in perfumery disagree on the most fundamental question: whether a given perfume, in this case, Prada Infusion d'Iris is any good at all! Let us be clear: Burr and Turin do not disagree about why this perfume is good or bad. They disagree about whether it is good or bad!


Principles or Taste?

Here are the “principles” which I was able to glean from The Holey[sic] Book: Turin and Sanchez like the smell of rubber, sweaty musk, and peaches. They do not care very much for roses. Rather than the golden mean or a refined subtle quality (as found in the creations of Keiko Mecheri), the authors prefer louder, more aggressive and extreme compositional styles (as are exemplified by some of the perfumes of the house of Lush). They seem to be easily bored and would rather smell like sneakers than amber. They harbor a deep-seated resentment toward perfumers who charge prices which they regard as exorbitant (are they really unaware that PERFUME IS NOT MILK?), and they are more interested in originality of composition than they are in the quality of materials.

This is how a low-brow Parlux juice factory fragrance such as Jessica Simpson Fancy can garner three stars and Salvador Dali Laguna four stars while high-quality perfumes produced by Mona di Orio or Hermès—along with many niche houses which use only the finest materials—receive only one or two stars. The niche perfumes rejected by the authors as disasters often have broad followings among perfumistas who regard them as great.

The above gleaned “principles” are not principles of art criticism. They are predilections and preferences. They are statements of the authors' highly subjective tastes, no more and no less. If someone were to read all of my reviews, he would learn that my personal “principles” include a priority toward high-quality materials, complex development, and good longevity and sillage. I appreciate subtlety and eschew histrionic excess. I am much less interested than are Turin and Sanchez in who supposedly first came up with the idea that a certain combination of notes would work well. Frankly, I and many other perfume users could not care less who got there first.

I have a penchant for ambrette, violet, labdanum, benzoin, and roses, especially in oriental compositions. I dislike rubber, plastic fruits, heavy cumin, asafoetida, and sweaty musk. I would much rather smell like amber than sneakers. Another of my preferences—arbitrary though it may seem to some—is to avoid fragrances boasting BHT among their ingredients. In addition, because I appear to have a chemical incompatibility with Alberto Morillas, whom I affectionately refer to as “Chemical Albie,” I no longer blind buy any perfume created by him. Does this mean that he is not an olfactory artist? No, it means that he is not the perfumer for me. I and people who share my perfumic values wish to smell beautiful, well-made perfumes which do not assault our central nervous system and do not degenerate over the course of a wear into some sort of noxious form of chemical waste.

We all have our criteria for determining how to dispense with our perfume wallet share, and those criteria explain why we favor the works of this house or that, and we gravitate toward some perfumers while eschewing others. But are these criteria ever anything more than an expression of personal taste? That is the question, my fragrant friends.

I am fully prepared to be converted, if someone out there can step forward and steer me toward whatever the principles of perfume criticism are supposed to be. To this point, however, I have to say that I'm with Christos: in thousands of years of perfume use, no principles have ever emerged. Why should they now, in the twenty-first century?

Can We Talk? About Perfume