Arts and Crafts and the Status of Perfume
The status of perfume continues to be debated, but it seems that the reigning climate these days is inclining people to join the “perfume is art” camp. There are many possible sociological, economic, and psychological explanations for this phenomenon relating specifically to this moment in history, but the question whether perfumery is really an art may be but one iteration of an age-old dispute regarding the distinction—or lack thereof—between arts and crafts. Is an accomplished potter an artist or a craftsman? What about a gourmet chef?
Is a genuine object of art essentially useless, serving no mundane function? Does an artist whose medium is clay become a mere craftsman on the days when she produces bowls and mugs? Should what she does be judged by appeal to what other people may or may not do with her creations? If she drills holes in the bottom of her mugs, making it impossible to use them for the purpose for which they appear to be intended, then will this act—senseless to some—elevate her, the creator, to the status of artist? Or will she just be a bad (mad!) potter?
The genre fiction writer offers another useful example for reflection. Authors of detective and mystery, science fiction, and romance novels are producing books which fit into certain predelineated categories and which follow certain basic conventions.
The readers of such works have a set of expectations which must be met in order for the work to succeed. A mystery novel without any suspense is a failure because being suspenseful is essential to being a good mystery novel. A romance novel with no hot and steamy scenes of love and betrayal would be a flop. A science fiction novel which made no reference to the current state of technology and possible future developments would crash like a rocket with a faulty O-ring.
The Toiletries Take
To many, indeed most, consumers, perfume is a toiletry. Perfumistas have been known to bristle at the suggestion that the object of their olfactory love might be anything less than the most exquisite work of art. Nonetheless, like it or not, perfume is regarded by many people as a toiletry because it is a consumable product just like soap, lotion, and toothpaste.
Such products all serve functions and offer certain very specific benefits to the user.
People generally perfume themselves in order to smell good. Often the goal is to smell attractive to other people. Some wearers, at least judging by comments in fragrance community website forums, appear to care more about others' receptions of their perfume than they do about their own perceptions of their own scent.
Whether those who perfume themselves care more about their own opinions' or the opinions of those with whom they come in contact while wearing perfume, they appear to be united in their commitment to the idea so often recited in perfume reviews, that Perfume should smell good. From this perspective, if a perfume does not smell good, then it is either a bad perfume, or it is not perfume at all because it is unwearable.
Bad poetry has its own name: doggerel. Bad perfume is sometimes referred to as swill or dreck. Bad food is slop, but food which cannot even in principle be consumed is really garbage in disguise. In this way, perfumery is obviously similar to cuisine. A meal, no matter how painstakingly prepared by a chef, must be edible, in the end. If it is utterly inedible, because it is repulsive or poisonous, then the chef has failed. Food should taste good, and perfume should smell good. Does this not imply that niche perfumery is completely analogous to haute cuisine? Blasphemy of all blasphemies...
Unlike most other crafts, cooking and perfumery are united by the fact that the products of the craft are consumed. We might consider wine in the same group and place oenology on an equal footing with other crafts the ultimate objective of which is to produce consumable goods. The artisan may and often does aim to produce fine, excellent, beautiful, even transcendent goods, but they must, at the end of the day, be consumable all the same.
What I find especially interesting about these crafts is not just that the goods produced are consumed, it is that the goods must be consumed in order to be experienced. Perfume appreciation, like fine wine and cuisine appreciation involves destroying the very object of appreciation through an act of ingestion. There is no point to food which is not eaten or wine which sits in a cellar never to be imbibed. Similarly, perfume in a capped bottle may hold potential for appreciation, but it is not truly appreciated for what it is, the unique combination of notes which unfurl before the nose, until it is sprayed.
This is, in part, it seems to me, the basis for the claim sometimes made that large perfume collections are ridiculous. If the person who owns hundreds—or even thousands—of perfumes cannot even in principle wear them all, then is she really any different from the notorious hoarder, who amasses and clings to objects in a desperate attempt to create meaning from an otherwise meaningless existence?
Perhaps we can think about large perfume collections in a more charitable light. Perhaps what they reflect is a desire—widely shared by perfumistas today, or so it seems—that we should be able to have our perfume and sniff it too, so to speak. This would seem to be the guiding idea behind the Osmothèque, an institution established in order to preserve perfume which however, in reality, can only be experienced through its very annihilation.
My distinct impression is that most people, even sophisticated perfumistas, have not really thought through the very many different kinds of judgments which they make regarding perfumes. The term 'art' has been appropriated to express approval, without any real examination of what it could mean for perfumery to be an art. It is unclear in what aesthetic principles of judgment applicable to perfumery might consist. People appear to judge perfumes solely by appeal to their own idiosyncratic tastes. Are there principles of perfume criticism? No one has yet to make the case. We can of course use language in any way we like and, yes, we may express our approval of a perfume labeling it a masterpiece or a chef d'oeuvre. But that just seems to be code for: “I love it!”
Certain nagging contradictions need to be addressed, if we are to get to the bottom of this question, it seems to me. On the one hand, many perfumistas seem to want to exalt perfume to the status of an eternal, immortal art. Most notably, in his Untitled series, Chandler Burr has been exhorting people to smell perfume as an art object. A sentence from one of his introductory texts at OpenSky reads: For the first time, experience perfumes in a way that will allow — in fact encourage — you to rethink each scent by freeing you from all visual cues and marketing techniques.
Burr appears to be addressing the unwashed masses most of whom have never participated in the sorts of Mystery Scent Vial Trials which have been hosted by perfumistas for years now. But even people who sample perfumes from vials, independently of the bottles, have already been experiencing perfume as perfume, not as marketing hype.
To be perfectly frank (quoi d'autre?), it is not at all clear to me what smelling perfume as a work of art is actually supposed to mean. Does smelling a perfume differ from smelling a perfume under the label objet d'art? In what might the allegedly distinct experiences inhere? Both would seem to involve ingesting molecules through the nose which transmit messages to the brain. How does calling a perfume a “work of art” change any of that?
Another problem with such an idea is that perfume is the only example of an alleged art which leaves no traces of itself behind having once been experienced. We must first purchase perfume for our personal consumption before we are able to appreciate it—whether as an objet d'art or something rather more mundane, to wit: a toiletry. Because it must be acquired and destroyed to be appreciated, perfume is essentially commodified.
Of Rules and Shopping Carts
Further evidence for the craft status of perfumery may be found in considering the complacent adherence by perfumers to the IFRA regulations restricting the use of certain materials. Perfumers appear, by and large, to be abiding by these regulations or guidelines. But since when did artists follow the rules? The attitude of perfumers themselves toward the IFRA, their willingness to line up in a row even as this severely restrains their own creative potential, suggests that perfumery is not really an art, at least not as practiced by the vast majority of professional perfumers today. Olfactory art is possible because any kind of art is possible, but perfumers do not, for the most part, seem to be engaged in that enterprise. Most of them are, instead, “noses for hire”.
Successful professional perfumers such as Alberto Morillas and Yann Vasnier secure contracts with a variety of different houses because they can be depended upon to create perfumes which consumers will wish to wear and, by extension, buy. Of course, the same is true, mutatis mutandis, for successful chefs. They are not hired by restaurants unless they have demonstrated their dependability at producing pleasing food which patrons will want to consume. The similarity of the vocation of successful perfumers and chefs suggests, then, that whatever one wishes to call what these professionals do, that label—art or craft—should apply to both cases.
It is worth underscoring here that the Untitled Series being “curated” by Chandler Burr is being carried out under the auspices of the social shopping site OpenSky. The scare quotes are intended. The word 'curated' has become fashionable of late and is now applied to any collection of just about any goods being offered up for sale. I recently received an advertisement from Henri Bendel touting the virtues of its “curated” gourmet snack collection!
The mission of OpenSky, like that of Henri Bendel, is clearly to get people to consume more and more random things as quickly as possible. Nothing else can be reasonably inferred from the frequency of their emails to me in an incessant campaign to get me to buy n'importe quoi, above all, whatever I may have been looking at most recently. If I only browse and do not buy something from OpenSky but make the mistake of placing some item in my cart (to avoid wasting time at the only shopping site I've seen which actually lacks a search button—at least as of today), then I am rewarded with stalking messages until such time as I either buy the item or purge it from my cart.
Once my cart is empty, then I am enticed to return to OpenSky to fill it with more random objects recommended by my “friends” Bobbie Flay, Ming Tsai, Chandler Burr, and anyone else whom I've “shopped with” before. Every so often I am sent a “free shipping day” message, and I also seem to be regularly rewarded for my reticence in closing out deals with “credits” of various amounts, which lately have ceased to be applicable to clearance items and now only apply to purchases of at least $50.
Perfume is a commodity, which Chandler Burr is attempting to sell at the same time that he wishes to exalt perfumery to the status of an art. Many perfumistas appear to have jumped on the Burr bandwagon—which is not to say that this whole movement was his own idea, for it was not—but they also want to consume the perfume paid for with their hard-earned cash. Even more striking, they want to have their perfume—as an art—while retaining the ability to consume it on the cheap, applying pricing standards appropriate to toiletries in deciding whether a perfume is worth its price tag or not.
Fine Art at Toiletries Prices?
Wake Up and Smell the Chemical Soup!
Wake Up and Smell the Chemical Soup!
In an earlier manifesto relating to this topic, PERFUME IS NOT MILK, I pointed out that perfume is an affordable luxury or self-indulgence to anyone well-off enough to dine out, drink wine, or to drive a car where that is manifestly not a necessity (as in a city with an excellent public transportation system). Following upon a feisty exchange with Kankuro (of Parfumo fame) over at Fragrantica, I would like to approach the economic question from another angle. My answer, you may rest assured, will remain the same—not because I am a dogmatist, but because my opinion has yet to change!
I have been struck recently by the importance of this question all the more as I have attempted to wrestle with the question of whether or not perfume is an art. As we have seen, there are good reasons for skepticism about the status of perfumery as one of the beaux arts, but I would like to consider what the likely consequences of a widespread affirmation of perfume as an art form would be. Specifically, what would the economic effect be?
As a preamble, let us consider again the somewhat alarming revelations of the Daily Finance article “Behind the Spritz,” in which the breakdown of the cost of a $100 MSRP bottle of perfume is displayed. On first read, it is mindboggling to discover that the perfume itself accounts for only 2% of the cost of an average massmarketed designer perfume. The article no doubt incensed many perfume lovers, confirming yet again in their mind that the price being asked for by houses is far too high.
I'd liked to dig a bit more deeply into this issue. First off, the assumption being made in the article and by anyone who is troubled by its revelations, is that the price of a good should be more or less the same as the combined price of its constituent components, plus perhaps a small profit margin to those who peddle the product. It seems like common sense.
Let us take a simple example. No one really thinks that a pizza should cost the sum of the cost of flour + yeast + tomatoes + cheese + oregano + olive oil + the heat needed to cook it. If that is what a pizza cost, its price would be something like $1. Add some sausage or anchovies, and maybe it would cost $2. Instead, pizzas cost ten times that much. Part of that price difference is due to the cost of labor to produce the pizza.
Somebody had to harvest the wheat to make flour, to mix with yeast and water, to knead and punch dough, to roll or throw it out to form a disc, to adorn the dough and to convey it into an oven for it to bake. Someone else had to grow the tomatoes, chop them up, transform them into pizza sauce. Yet another chain of persons was needed to milk the cow, to make the cheese, to catch the anchovies, etc. In fact, the costs involved in each of these separate chains to the production of the various components of a pizza is already embedded in the cost of the end product of that chain. So if wheat flour costs $1 for a pound, that price already includes the cost of producing it, along with the profits enjoyed by the various persons employed within the chain.
If one were to produce all of the components of a pizza from scratch—don't try this at home!—that would be another matter altogether and an exercise which would swiftly demonstrate the virtue of the divisions of labor which have arisen in the modern world. Once one reflects upon the chain of labor involved in the production of a pizza, its price no longer seems exorbitant at all. Restaurants buy their basic ingredients in bulk at a significantly lower cost than the volumes typically used by individual consumers. Consequently, to make a pizza at home, which would require first purchasing all of the separate ingredients, would probably cost quite a bit more than the finished pizza parlor product itself—even without the (paltry) wages paid to the restaurant workers.
Turning now to the case of perfume, the consternation over the cost breakdown of a bottle of perfume arises because the aspects of the perfume which we truly value account for the smallest portion of its price. Everything else, much of it extraneous—or so it seems—costs more. Even the bottle, at an average of $6, costs three times more than the juice inside, at $2. On its face, then, the case of perfume seems rather different than that of pizza. True, some pizza parlors do advertise, but many do not—or at least not in the way that Chanel and Dior do—and we are confident that most of the money which we pay for a pizza covers the cost of the pizza itself, not its box!
The concerns raised in “Behind the Spritz” are precisely why people have decried the price of perfume, and often complain about it in their reviews. But what, my fragrant friends, is the cost of anything—and why? Why does a professional baseball player earn millions of dollars a year for donning a costume, hitting a fast-moving ball with a stick, and running around a parallelogram as fast as he can? And why in the world do people pay hundreds of dollars for their families to be able to sit in the stands and watch him do that? For heaven's sake, they could be spending that money on some very fine perfume!
In some cases, a vast disparity arises because the objects in question have an emergent value, which far transcends the value of their material components. Consider a painting by any famous dead artist. Obviously, the cost of the canvas + paint + labor does not add up to the millions of dollars which such a work may command at Sotheby's.
When perfume reviewers complain that they would never pay so much for this, they mean a type of perfume which can be had for a much lower price. We perfumistas demand a lot of the perfumes said to be worthy of our wallet share. We want beautiful and original compositions which wear well and have excellent longevity and which will not spoil before we reach the bottom of the bottle. Many people also want all of this on the cheap. They seem truly to expect original masterpiece perfumes at knock-off prices.
I myself believe that the originality requirement has been grossly overstated and thoughtlessly applied in the case of perfume. Perhaps this is in part a result of the rampant charges of plagiarism made through The Holey [sic] Book. Many reviews by perfumistas seem keen to dismiss as redundant perfumes whose sole demerit is to have reminded the wearer of another perfume created earlier—and often with a lower price tag. To call a perfume a “clone” or a “knock-off” is to allege a conscious act of plagiarism on the part of the perfumer who created it.
I do not understand nor have I ever understood, first, why people derive such a sense of smug satisfaction through leveling such (fully unsubstantiated!) charges, nor, second, why this slander/libel has not been recognized for what it is by nearly anyone—save sherapop—to date. Instead, this condemnation of the efforts of hard-working, well-meaning perfumers continues in a spate unlikely to abate until The Holey [sic] Book is so badly out of date that people stop turning to it at all.
The strident tone and fervor with which this perfume is denounced as a clone of that one, far from establishing the validity of the charge, diminishes the reviewer, not the perfumer, in my mind. How many Beyond Paradise clones exist? Let us count the number of entries in which this manifestly preposterous assertion is made about perfumes which really smell nothing like Beyond Paradise at all! (Marc Jacobs Essence? Really?)
A Modest Proposal
The irony of the knock-off and clone complaints by perfumistas is that often some of the very same people complain from the left side of their mouth that perfume is too expensive and, from the right side of their mouth, that perfume has not been adequately recognized for the art that it is. In reality, the reason why perfume remains affordable, and is by far the least expensive among all luxury products, is precisely and only because the vast majority of consumers regard it as a lowly toiletry.
We may wish to duly acknowledge the greatness of transcendent perfumes, but we'll be much better off if we keep the artistic quality of our cherished elixirs a closely guarded secret among fragrant friends! When was the last time that an art collector picked up a masterpiece for $100 or $200 or even $300? If the word gets out that niche perfume is really art, then the market price will skyrocket and all middle class perfumistas will suffer as a result.
This argument against exalting perfumery as an art is diaphanously pragmatic and self-serving. But I wonder whether those who insist on characterizing perfumers as artists and perfumery as an art have ever thought this matter through and entertained what the consequences would be, were they to succeed in exalting perfume above the (other) toiletries. I recently read a review in which the author expressed “deep regret” at having shelled out all of $15 for several perfume samples from a house whose wares were not to her liking. Need I say more?