Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Paper, Skin, or... Cat Fur?

A Modest Proposal

How best to test new perfumes is a matter of some controversy. Many counters today have tester bottles out on display, but do not offer take-away samples, making it prohibitively difficult to give a fair trial to more than a couple of perfumes in a single afternoon. It all becomes too confusing when one attempts to spray a different perfume on each side of the neck, on the inside and outside of each arm, on the décolleté and whatever random piece of skin might happen to remain free of scent.

To make matters worse, few of us are willing to forgo our morning application of perfume in anticipation of a merely possible visit to a counter. Consequently, more often than not, we are already wearing a perfume when we layer others on top, and this compromises—if it does not totally obstruct—our ability to get a good sense of a new scent unamalgamated and unadulterated by whatever we happen to be wearing that day. In the end, many of us who take perfume seriously have difficulty assessing fragrances by such means, among other reasons, because one cannot really “inhabit” the perfume in such a way, certainly not in the manner in which one does when one dons a single perfume for the entire day.

The pseudo-perfume powder “samples” included in fashion magazines for massively advertised launches by the largest, most corporate of houses strike serious perfume-lovers as, at best, unhelpful, at worst, downright deceptive. The substance on those samples is, by definition, not the same as the perfume which they claim to represent. Still, the debate continues to rage over whether it is possible or not to get a fair idea of the essence of a perfume through sniffing it off a paper testing strip.

On the one hand, it may seem that the only way to get a sense of several perfumes during a visit to a counter at a house or department store is to avail oneself of the omnipresent paper strips strategically placed in cups always within arm's reach. On the other hand, presumably no one will deny that paper is not skin, that they differ very much in chemical constitution, and therefore there is little if any reason for believing that perfume will express itself in the same way on these two quite different media. Even worse, the development trajectory of a complex perfume is bound to elude the sniffer who depends on paper strips, if only because no one holds the strip to his or her nose over the course of the hour or so that it can take a complex creation fully to unfurl.

Paper strips may be ideal from a marketer's perspective, provided that the perfume which they are concerned to sell happens to have a beautiful, even if fleeting, opening. Assuming that many sales are made at the counter, on the spot, it would seem that consumers are often seduced by the top notes rather than waiting to see how the perfume might smell in a few hours. Although some perfumes are linear, even in those cases, it is as though longevity is removed from the equation when sales associates attempt to sell a new perfume to a customer on the basis of a quick sniff off a paper strip.

I have heard some people suggest, nonetheless, that the use of paper strips by professional reviewers is a way of cutting through the variables introduced by individual persons' unique skin properties, the temperature, pH, sebum level, etc., which obviously differ from case to case. The paper strip advocate who argues along these lines is assuming that skin chemistry is a relevant factor in determining how a perfume plays out, and wishes not to be misled about the properties of the perfume as they manifest themselves on some other person's skin, non-identical with the person seeking counsel about which are the best perfumes. The problem with this view is that it assumes that the differences between any given person's skin and a strip of paper are less pronounced than the differences between the skin of two distinct wearers. This strikes me as quite dubious, to say the least.

What about the “skin chemistry is much ado about nothing” camp? Presumably they will aver what no reasonable person can deny, that paper and skin are nothing like one another. This would seem to imply that denying the relevance of skin chemistry should actually give one more faith in reviews based upon skin than on paper tests, since different people's skin properties are much more similar to one another than any of them is to a strip of paper, or so it would seem.

Oddly enough, some people appear to deny the relevance of skin chemistry and yet still depend on paper strips when it comes time to pen reviews. This strikes me as a path leading directly to error, as the person is bound to interpret the perfume not as it would smell on wearers, but as it would smell on dead trees. No one applies perfume to trees, do they? It would seem, then, whether one subscribes to the skin chemistry irrelevance hypothesis or The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth, that perfume really should be tested on the skin. Or should it?

In all of this debate over paper versus skin, an important third way has been up until now entirely ignored. I come to you today with a new idea which may initially sound outlandish, but which, on reflection, I believe may finally bring a halt to the skin versus paper debate. The reality, my fragrant friends, is that far more important to how our perfume smells on us to us, is how our perfumes smell on us to others. Accordingly, in order to appreciate the true value of a perfume, we would be much better off smelling it on someone else.

One especially vexing difficulty arises from the very fact that we may develop a tolerance to our own perfume and may not even be able to detect it after a while. This problem is a real one, a fact nowhere better illustrated than in the case of persons who, entirely unaware of how they really smell, overapply their perfume to the point where they become unpleasant to be around, if not totally intolerable. So, what to do?

Unfortunately, we cannot spritz a sales associate and bring him or her home with us, continuing to sniff as the perfume develops and ultimately dries down to its later and longest phase. However, I recently happened upon a solution to this problematic situation in my very own home. It turns out that HRH Emperor Oliver (my cat) has an uncanny way of smelling scrumptiously wonderful the day after I have worn certain perfumes. I often marvel at his resplendent perfumic beauty, which is captured for me as a form of souvenir of how I must have smelled the previous day—or at least I hope! Did I really smell that great? I wonder on the day after I donned Hermès 24, Faubourg. Again, if I wore La Perla one evening, I am reminded of that fact the following day as the perfume continues to waft gorgeously off my cat's fur.

What I am proposing is that, rather than resorting to scraps of paper bearing no relation to our skin, and rather than depending upon our own perception of how a perfume plays out while we walk around in it, we have a third option: to avail ourselves of the divinity of felinity and, specifically, the capacity for the faithful conveyance made possible by the fine palette of our cat's fur. I myself have found this to be a fail-safe, fool-proof method for identifying perfumes which may seem to have a superficial appeal, but which reveal their less noble properties the following day, when I find myself saying, Oh, no, did I really smell like that?

Some may obstinately proclaim: I wear perfume for myself and myself alone! and in this they are not alone. But we all live in an intersubjectively shared universe, and it is a fact that sometimes we need to be told what we perhaps find unpleasant to hear. If your perfume or your manner of perfuming yourself stinks, then you will only harm yourself by permitting the number of people sharing this view to augment with each passing day.

The zipper of your fly is down; spinach is trapped between your teeth; a piece of toilet paper is stuck to the bottom of your shoe and trailing behind you everywhere you go. I ask most sincerely: Would you rather be informed of this embarrassing state of affairs by the first or the four-hundredth person to notice? This is where cats can step most helpfully into the perfume picture: to let us know, in no uncertain terms, what we really need to know about the perfumes which we choose to scent the air hovering about us wherever we go and readily detectable by everyone we meet.

Now, lest the people at PETA become alarmed at my modest proposal, I would like to clarify that I never spritz perfume directly on my cat's fur. Instead, he manages to lift enough off my skin by sidling up to me—which he himself chooses freely to do—that I can effectively sample the perfume the next day simply by nuzzling the nape of his neck or the top of his head. Great perfumes reveal all of their beauty through this mode of presentation, and mediocre perfumes are exposed for the imposters that they truly are.

But the highest virtue of my cat's ability to sift the wheat from the chaff, the carp from the bass, is that he will not even get near me on days when I am wearing a perfume which no one in the universe should be wearing. Yes, it has happened: my cat has fled upon sensing my approach on occasions when I have worn a concoction so synthetic, so vile, so repulsive to his ultrasensitive sense of smell, that he scrupulously avoids coming in contact with me.

Lest anyone forget, a cat is the quintessential rationally self-interested creature. Sure, cats have been valued by ignoble, calculating types throughout history for their ability to keep larders free of mice. The truth, however, is that never have the cats who have agreed to fulfill such helpful functions been used as chattel. No, the cats have agreed to watch over stores of grain not in demeaning, despicable obedience to people foolish enough to believe themselves to be the cats' masters, but because the cats knew what rewards awaited them, that just and equitable remuneration was a part and parcel of the bargain they had struck.

That the owners of larders and granaries have since time immemorial persisted in their delusive belief that somehow cats are indentured slaves, is of little interest to the cats themselves. That cats should squander the precious hours of their lives in the ultimately futile endeavor of attempting to disabuse human beings of their profound misconceptions about the universe and their place in it has never been a preoccupation of cats' minds. They have bigger fish to fry.

The cat's position on all of these matters is perhaps best assimilated to that of Aristotle: although they benefit from all that they freely choose to do, cats do not refuse to act in ways which may be helpful to people, too. No, the cat succumbs to neither the victimology/slave morality trap diagnosed by Nietzsche nor the inane idea promulgated by certain deeply confused souls (and popularized by Ayn Rand) that acting in helpful, apparently “altruistic” ways is somehow morally wrong. No, the cat who catches mice and rats performs a useful function to others while he himself benefits as well.

So, too, does the cat who agrees to serve as a perfume tester in the home benefit through fulfilling this apparently selfless role. Stinky perfume is through the cat's beneficent intervention removed, bottle by bottle, from the abode, and he himself stands to gain the most from this improvement in air quality. Why? Because cats are olfactory geniuses, what no one who shares his home with a cat is in a position sincerely to deny.

How else to explain that my cat knows that I have opened a can of tuna or even a packet of dental treats located in a completely different room from where he may be taking an afternoon nap, even in a state of deep REM sleep? It's a fact: he detects scent-making molecules long before and in much lower concentration than any human being, with even the most sensitive or hyperosmic of noses.

Even more importantly, and rarely if ever heretofore acknowledged, no perfume is capable of tricking cat fur, which frustrates any attempts to fool naïve customers such as those who await in rapt attention the advice of a sales associate whose job it is specifically and obviously to sell perfumes, and who has been instructed, on pain of unemployment for failure to do so, to push certain products before others.

It is high time, my fellow perfumistas, that you welcomed a cat into your humble abode, should you as matters now stand be bereft of the same, not only as a way of introducing the divine light of felinity into the chambers of your soul, but also for this more practical reason: when it comes to perfume, your cat will never lead you astray.

The ancient Egyptians equated cats with gods, and they were not wrong. Cats have the superlative capacity to capture and convey the true beauty of olfactory masterpieces and to unmask all of the cheap pretenders, the bad frags only posing as perfume. You've been perfuming for awhile now, dabbling in expensive niche offerings here and there. Now you've reached a crossroads: do you want to continue to wallow in mere opinion and ignorance, or are you ready at long last to aspire to perfumic truth?

Isn't it about time
that you teamed up with a cat?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Big Black Bechstein in the Middle of the Room

Perfume as Music

For years I have been trying to persuade myself to believe that perfumes are closer to poems than to other art forms. I have gone so far as to devise lists of identity claims which presumably demonstrate the truth of this apparently preposterous theory (see: Perfumes, Persons, and Poems). In all of this frenzy of activity, I have somehow failed to see the Big Black Bechstein in the middle of the room: that, in fact, perfume is much closer to music than it is to poetry.

Several lines of reasoning have fortuitously converged more or less simultaneously upon this same conclusion. Some of the first interlocutors to help to jolt me from my dogmatic slumber were Bob Johnson and one T.S. Brock (in comments at another site), who pointed out problems with my “perfumes as poetry” theory. More recently, in a response to the salon discussion of Duchamp's Fontaine and  ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques, salonista Njeb offered this excellent explanation of the distinction between representational and nonrepresentational art:

One reason I love abstract art is that it can go right to the primitive part of your brain and evoke feelings in a way that you aren't even really sure where they come from. What you are viewing is not really "something" and yet it makes you feel a certain way.

                             --Njeb, January 20, 2012, comment on Tower of Babel 2

In recent weeks, having set my “perfumes are poems” theory temporarily to one side while mulling over possible disparities between the two cases, I have also been trying to understand what I have been referring to as the Tower of Babel problem of radically disparate receptions to perfumes (including Sécrétions Magnifiques) in terms of selective physiological differences among various persons. It appears that people do not smell the same perfume when they praise as a masterpiece what others decry as a disaster. Or do they?

I do in fact still believe that variable sensitivities and distributions of hyposmias, anosmias, and hyperosmias may help to explain why and how a perfume such as L'Artisan Parfumeur Dzing! smells to some people like Bandaids and dung while it is heralded by others for its faithful reproduction of the scent of the kind of paper found in certain books. If we all know what Bandaids, dung, and paper smell like, then such radical distinctions in interpretation would seem to be grounded in the fact that some sniffers are not picking up on the specifically “dung-like” or “Bandaid”-like quality of that composition.

The same theory of physiological difference also explains why some reviewers appear to experience Sécrétions Magnifiques as a banal floral aquatic fragrance, not the serial killer crime scene facsimile experienced by others, myself included. All of these problems would seem to be exacerbated by the fact that different perfumes appear to express themselves differently on different wearers. Gypsy Parfumista reports, for example, that his mother dislikes Sécrétions Magnifiques on herself but finds it not unlikeable on her son, providing yet more welcome evidence for the Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth.

Still, there appears to be something else going on as well, as was illustrated by a couple of our commentators on the Tower of Babel 2. Gypsy Parfumista and kastehelmi seemed to interpret the same perfume very differently. Does Sécrétions Magnifiques convey an interpretation of the scent of sex? Or is it rape? Attitudes toward the perfume may well have something to do with one's answer to that question.

But what is it that leads some wearers to interpret such a composition in one way rather than the other in the first place? And why is it that disagreement in perfume criticism seems to have more to do with seemingly incommensurable interpretations than with facts about (the properties of) the objects of critique, the perfumes themselves?

Conceptual Similarities
The key to all of these conundra, I am finally beginning to appreciate, may lie in the marked similarity of perfume not to poetry but to music. First of all, perfume, like music, is non-representational and nonverbal. Neither is expressed in a human language readily translatable to other human languages. Yes, some music is choral, and has text associated with it, but the music itself remains entirely distinct. Opera and related genres would seem to be hybrid art forms involving both poetry and pure music.

Many of the same qualities which mark music off as distinct from the other arts hold true for perfume as well. The contents of a bottle of perfume are not directly translatable to other human languages, though we may try our best to describe what it is that we smell. Perfume, like music, is nonrepresentational in that it does not literally represent or refer to any objects in the world.

Perfume may and certainly does evoke memories of objects, but no object is implied by any particular perfume. This is perhaps one of the reasons why people may differ so radically over the “meaning” of a perfume such as ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques, as we have been discussing here in recent weeks.

Perfume, like music, calls forth strong emotions and memories in some but not all people, and the elicited memories may be visual images, but, in the end, whatever they are, they are much more dependent upon the wearer's or sniffer's unique history than upon the nature of the perfume itself.

Perfume, like music, may be more or less lyrical, with a development trajectory which flows and undulates, or, in the case of a linear composition, which stays the same from start to finish. This may be why those who love classic perfumes with complex development trajectories find modern linear compositions sometimes boring and banal.

Perhaps linear perfumes can be usefully compared to simpler musical forms, such as the four-chord pop score, or the familiar twang of a country music riff. Perfumes which develop differently even on the same person during different wearings may be closer to extemporaneous jazz compositions. One might want to compare simple aromachemical perfumes such as Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 to some of the minimalist music of a composer such as Philip Glass.

Classic and vintage perfumes with well-defined, and complex yet repeatable development trajectories, such that they can be meaningfully discussed by multiple wearers—who experience similar series of unfurling notes—may be closer to classical music compositions, which have stood the test of time because they appeal to so many listeners and musicians, all of whom are able to agree on the score's transcendent beauty, though they may differ in their precise understanding or, in the case of musicians, about how best to interpret the score in a performance.

Extraneous similarities
Music and perfume are also similar in the sense that particular instances of the perfume or the work of music do not exhaust the work itself. In order to preserve a work of music, it is transcribed onto a score, which provides instructions on how to bring the piece back to life through a performance. Perfumers similarly preserve their formulae so that the perfume which they initially created can be re-created, reproduced, over and over again. Some performances are bad, just as some bottles of perfume are bad, having been poorly executed by those who took themselves to be following the composer's (perfumer's) instructions.

Both music and perfume can be perverted later on down the line. A beautiful classical composition can be watered down and rendered insipid, stripped of passion and directed toward the functional purpose of providing a background noise “Muzak” in public places. Perfumes which are reformulated often suffer a similar fate: they are perverted and eviscerated through tweaking the formula in ways which may be intended to improve the original but more often are probably intended to have cost-cutting effects.

Yes, reformulation is often claimed to be necessitated by the IFRA bans, but, in reality, many more perfumes appear to have been reformulated for crassly economic reasons. Clearly, if a perfume never contained evernia prunastri or any of the other “forbidden” components, then its reformulation was not motivated by concerns with complying with the IFRA (see Reflections on Reformulation, for more on this).

Perfume can also be misused, in the way that music can be poorly performed. A composer may cringe upon hearing a grotesque interpretation of his work, and a perfumer may cringe at discovering that his masterpiece is being overapplied by some wearers to the point where the beauty of the composition becomes impossible to perceive by those who come in contact with the over-perfumed person. Those who love perfumes such as Thierry Mugler Angel and Christian Dior Poison are the first to offer advice on how properly to apply the objects of their esteem. A spritz at the hip level or into the air through which one walks are a couple of the suggestions I've seen offered by reviewers of such über-potent perfumes.

But wait, there's more: the very production of entire genres of perfumes, as of music, appears to be driven more by market forces than by the creative élan of the artists involved. In this way, both music and perfume may be produced specifically to feed into a demonstrated market, which can be exploited over and over again by producing the same old thing: repetitive pop music, on the one hand; generic aquatic and sport colognes and fruity-floral fragrances, on the other—both of which cater to a certain stratum of society which seeks the comfort of the familiar in deciding where to spend their money on new music and new perfume.

Experiential Similarities
On a deeper level, transcending the conceptual and the extraneous similarities between music and perfume, it seems that the way we process both of these art forms is deeply personal, informed even more by our personal history and experience than by the object itself. This explains, among other things, why “one perfumista's treasure is another perfumista's trash,” and why some people love while others loathe classical music. Is it wrong or misguided to hate the music of J.S. Bach? I would be surprised if many people did. What does seem to be the case is that many people have no interest in such music, because it does not speak to them.

Similarly, a classic “old lady” floral aldehyde or chypre perfume may be less than meaningless to a young person looking to smell like the typically fruity-floral fragrance which has taken the industry by storm. Consider the “sweet laundry” and the vanilla patchouli fads in current perfumery. These sorts of scents have been made to seem familiar to large swaths of the market by their near ubiquity. They have become accessible by their sheer availability.

How can an average consumer possibly develop a taste for a genre of perfume which is not currently holding sway in the corridors of Sephora? If through exposure to perfumes massively marketed through multi-million-dollar campaigns featuring celebrities who pose in glittering attire—the suggestion being that one will presumably become similar to such celebrities by donning their perfume—one comes to dispense one's perfume wallet share on those products, then it will have been already been spent. Only perfumistas, who approach their hobby and passion as a quest for truth, knowledge, and beauty, are sufficiently motivated to invest the time and energy needed to learn about currently less popular genres of perfume, including those produced by niche houses (for more on this, see The Question of Niche).

The same holds true for music. Everyone is exposed to popular music: on the radio, through mass media, etc., in fact, through many of the same avenues by which one learns of popular perfumes. Only some people are exposed to what snobs would term art music, by virtue of having parents who value formal music education or simply want to provide as many opportunities to their children as possible.

I wonder whether with the advent of the internet fewer children are taking piano and guitar lessons, but I strongly suspect that is true. Children, like adults, are now busy surfing the web. It's no longer even possible, it seems to me, for someone to be bored, provided only that they have access to the internet. But music lessons, in the past, were an important source of diversion to children, and some among them developed a serious interest in classical music as a result.

In the world of perfume, as in the world of music, market success appears to be taken more often than not as the measure of quality. There are “perfume critics” just as there are “music critics”, but their opinions appear to hold little sway against market-driven trends. Most people who consume perfume and music decide what to buy based not on what the self-proclaimed experts say, but on what they happen to like, though the range of their choices appear to be narrowed considerably by exposure to marketing and by whatever happens to be available at the time when the person is looking to acquire a new perfume.

People have finite time and so tend to become attached to certain forms of music, which necessitates a neglect of others. So, too, do people have only a finite amount of body upon which to apply perfume, and a limited number of occasions during their short lives in which to wear the perfumes which they happen to have arrived at, often purely by chance.

The more I think about these overlaps between perfume and music, the more I become convinced that perfume really is the music of the nose. Although the similarities proliferate the more I reflect upon these matters, I am specifically interested in the implications for our experience of perfume. Just as listening to a piece of music is very different from performing it, and performance is very different from composition, I continue to wonder whether part of the Tower of Babel problem inheres precisely in people's confusion about what perfume actually is.

Perfume sometimes is the focus of our attention, similar to how one focuses at a concert on the music being played. There are always distractions, but some occasions of perfume wearing seem a lot like going to a concert. I think in this connection of the perfumes of the house of Serge Lutens, which are sometimes so intense that I feel that they command my full attention.

Often, however, perfumes are worn analogously to background music. That would explain the preponderance of doggerel-like perfumes in existence. They are not worn by and large for the sake of wearing great perfume. They are worn as a form of embellishment to one's appearance, like an accessory.

Depending upon how one is regarding perfume, there will be different attitudes about whether it is living up to its perceived promise. If the promise is to be inoffensive and pleasant, then many of the mass-marketed fragrances will meet that criterion, while powerhouse fragrances and even classic perfumes may not. All of this leads directly to the question of what precisely we are doing when we write perfume reviews.

Thinking about perfume on analogy to music, some reviewers approach perfumes from the perspective of a composer: they dissect it into parts, talk about the structure, the notes, and the trajectory. Other people simply report their personal experience of pleasure or displeasure with a perfume, in the manner in which one might critique a meal, explaining what works and what does not. Still other people tell stories about the memories which the wearing of a perfume have elicited. If perfume were music, or relevantly analogous to music, what would an appropriate perfume review by a wearer be?

Having shared some of my musings on these matters, I now turn to you, my fellow fragrant travelers:

Have you ever thought of perfume in musical terms?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tower of Babel 2, Duchamp and Art vs. Function, Beauty vs. Novelty

Is ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques
like Marcel Duchamp's Fontaine?

Etat Libre d'Orange Sécrétions Magnifiques is a polarizing perfume, to say the least. The first and most immediate problem of polarization is generated by the very fact that the people who like it do not seem even to smell the same perfume as those who detest it. This quite naturally raises the question of whether disagreements about perfumes more generally have more to do with our idiosyncratic physiological differences—our peculiar anosmias, hyposmias and hyperosmias—than with the ostensible objects of critique, the perfumes themselves. The problem is even further compounded by the effect of variable skin factors on how perfumes manifest themselves (see: The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth for more on this).

The confusion does not end there, however. In an eloquent comment on The Tower of Babel, Exhibit A, Gypsy Parfumista offered a very persuasive case for the claim that ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques can be coherently understood as a revolutionary work of conceptual art. Gypsy suggests, albeit in his own words, that this is precisely how we ought to understand Sécrétions Magnifiques:

As far as Secretions Magnifiques goes...*cracks knuckles* I have to confess that love it! I think the packaging is just what its creators wanted it to be: PROVOCATIVE! It provokes you to either (think you) hate it, because you find the art (or the actual scent) revolting, or love it (perhaps from the controversy and/or concept) before you even sniff it; or just want to own it to own it. ... I love the whole idea of what is actually exchanged when two people (regardless of gender) are intimate to be infinitely intriguing...and that someone DARED to make a perfume that attempts to capture that a feat of not only artistic vision but courage and a healthy sense of humor! … The thing about this perfume that made me think it was "artful" was that it took things no one ever dreamed of using in perfumery and united them with some interesting twists to come up with what some may be inclined to call the worst perfume in the world!

          —Gypsy Parfumista, January 9, 2012 (comments #15-19 at The Tower of Babel, Exhibit A)

I for one am willing to concede that, as much as I dislike Sécrétions Magnifiques as a perfume, it is indeed a successful piece of conceptual art. I do not, however, believe that it is one of the best perfumes ever created, far from it, in fact, and I certainly do not believe that, in blind trials, it would ever have been selected by any person knowledgeable of the history of perfume as one of the pinnacles of perfumic art.

The people who do not abhor the composition relay, as far as I've seen, rather banal experiences of it. In other words, even if one were to grant that persons anosmic or hyposmic to what are the revolting aspects of this perfume (to some wearers) are qualified to issue aesthetic judgments about the perfume as a perfume, it just seems far too pedestrian to qualify as high perfumic art, judging from the testimony of those who praise it.

That said, Sécrétions Magnifiques is something else. Upon reading Gypsy's words, I was immediately reminded of the case of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 submitted a urinal for exhibition at a museum, having christened his piece “Fontaine [Fountain]”, and sparked controversy and debate about the nature of art for decades to come. No one claimed that Duchamp was a great sculptor: he did not produce the urinal out of wet clay. But he was hailed as a great artist all the same.

Now those who are unimpressed with what ELdO has done in launching Sécrétions Magnifiques may dismiss it as a sort of prank or even provocation for the sake of provocation, and nothing like a great work of art. The same was said, of course, of Marcel Duchamp's Fontaine. In fact, it does not even matter very much whether or not everyone agrees about Sécrétions Magnifiques. The logic of the very question of its status is itself self-affirmatory. If everyone agreed, then there would be no controversy, and the perfume would have no value as a conceptual work of art. Again, no one agreed about Duchamp either. “Did he actually create anything?” was, I surmise, the most common skeptical question posed upon encountering Fontaine. Urinals are the most banal, ubiquitous, functional of things, used for the most unsavory of tasks, eliminating waste from the body. Can such an object be art?

What made Duchamp's Fontaine a work of art in the eyes of many was not that he had actually done anything artistic in the sense of brandishing a paintbrush or composing a piece of music or writing a poem—or producing a sculptured facsimile of a urinal. No, he took an object already in the world and decreed it to be “art”. The lack of skillful effort involved in this act was in fact an essential part of the revolutionary nature of his gesture.

One often hears remarks by unsophisticated visitors to modern art museums to the effect that I could have done that! When people scoff at works which are so simple that they could have made them—for example, a canvas painted with one uniform color—they are missing the entire point of Duchamp's act.

It seems to me that we should regard ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques in this way as well. In the case of Sécrétions Magnifiques, as in the case of Fontaine, it is not even necessary to come into direct content with the object of controversy. No, it is the nature of such conceptual artworks to generate and perpetuate controversy and debate. Thus the fact that some people refuse to give Sécrétions Magnifiques a sniff just constitutes more grist for the controversy mill.

In his quartet of comments, Gypsy Parfumista also made an admirable, if not entirely persuasive (to me!), attempt to defend the integrity of Sécrétions Magnifiques as a great perfume. I myself remain entirely unconvinced that persons who fail to perceive the repulsive aspects of the composition are qualified to judge it, just as I would never even think to ask a deaf person's opinion of a symphony. At best, in the most charitable of possible cases, one might be able to issue a relative judgment of the quality of the perfume, just as color blind persons may well have their own unique takes on paintings which to most of us feature vivid swaths of blue and green.

To reiterate: no one claimed that Fontaine was a great work of sculpture—it was not—and I do not believe that Sécrétions Magnifiques is a masterpiece of perfumery. I furthermore suspect that, in fact, it is not possible to be both a revolutionary conceptual work of art and a masterpiece in the classical/traditional sense. The categories seem to me mutually exclusive, so arguments for one are arguments against the other.

I also think that, notwithstanding Gypsy Parfumista's brilliant defense of ELdO as a conceptual work of art, the case of perfume, in particular, is quite a bit more complicated than that of visual art, for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that there are some reigning and very fundamental confusions about the very nature of perfume in the first place. In order to subvert the concept of perfume à la Duchamp, one must first have a basic understanding and community agreement about what perfume itself is.

Duchamp wanted to say that he created a work of art out of a urinal by putting it on display and giving it a name. What would be an analogous gesture in the case of perfume? It seems to me that a far more revolutionary gesture than what ELdO did would be to launch a bottle of air! In fact, it might seem to some as though Escentric Molecules has come close (and a few other perfumers have followed suit with variations on their theme) by bottling very simple mixtures featuring as their focal note a single aromachemical.

Iso-E-super is the essence of Molecule 01, and ambroxan has been bottled under the name Molecule 02Juliette Has a Gun has also launched a “version” of ambroxan, Not a perfume. In all of these cases, however, in contrast to that of ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques, the primary polarization between supporters and detractors appears to revolve around not the question of the nature of the scent, but the question of whether buying such an aromachemical at a niche perfume price makes any sense.

The aromachemicals being bottled as prêt-à-porter, as it were, niche perfumes have pleasing aesthetic properties, which is why they have been selected for these projects. They are often incorporated as “boosters” of sorts to more complex compositions, and so are not generally reviled and are in fact familiar scents to people who wear and appreciate perfume.

Accordingly, on their face, the case of the one-note wonder aromachemical perfumes would seem to differ significantly from ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques, because they are produced with the idea in mind that people really will want to wear them. And apparently they do: I saw at Aedes, for example, that Molecule 01 is one of their top sellers! The distinction between the case of a perfume produced as a provocative work of conceptual art—our example being ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques—and perfume produced in order to be appreciated and worn as perfume, leads us directly to the question of what, precisely, perfume is supposed to be.

Art vs. Function / Beauty vs. Novelty

While many perfumistas and perfumers may wish for the object of their obsession to be taken as seriously as the products of the seven established arts, certain factors peculiar to perfume and perfumery make the realization of this hope rather problematic, it seems to me. Perfume highlights age-old conflicts between Art and Functionality, on the one hand, and Beauty and Novelty, on the other.

The Tower of Babel is relevant here, in the first instance, because it really seems as though even knowledgeable people are often talking about different things in their reviews of perfume. The problem of disparate perception (selective hyposmia, anosmia, and hyperosmia), conjoined with the problem of variable skin chemistry, is thus triply compounded by the fact that people may have conflicting ideas about what precisely makes a good perfume good!

First off, it is obvious—and I frankly doubt that anyone would attempt to deny—that the vast majority of people purchase perfume for their personal use, in order to “consume” it themselves. I read in a fashion magazine last year that the number one reason why French women use perfume is to attract suitors. What? I thought to myself, recalling my relationship with a fellow who hated perfume more than just about anything else, including crime, war, and poverty. And yet, it appears, many women and men are using perfumes precisely in order to attract someone to them. They use perfume as a means to another end. Perfume is not, for these people, an end in itself.

Other people, such as myself, use perfume for personal pleasure, and I would be very, very surprised to learn of the existence of a single perfumista who did not also cite pleasure as a primary reason for collection (and obsessing) about perfume. Do we value perfume for perfume's sake? Can a perfume smelled by no one, one which is kept under inert gas and sniffed by no one, still be a great perfume? This seems very unclear to me and raises the whole question of the Osmothèque, which we'll be taking up as a separate salon topic in the not-too-distant future.

Now, there is a strain of perfumistas, at least judging by the contents of some of their reviews, who evaluate perfumes in terms of their novelty vis-à-vis what already exists in the world. So I often see people complaining that this or that perfume is a knock-off, a blatant copy, etc., of an already famous perfume.

I myself find it very unlikely that perfumers spend time acquiring samples of other perfumers' works and subjecting them to gas chromatographical analysis so that they can reproduce the same perfume. It just strikes me as incredibly implausible. Sure, maybe some of the industrial chemists at Unilever are doing that, but bona fide perfumers, who enjoy creating perfumes? Let's just say that I would be very, very surprised, if that were the case.

It seems far more likely to me that perfumers working in different places and times may sometimes generate similar-smelling perfumes because they have been acted upon by similar cultural forces, including exposure to a variety of trends. Lots of people have been producing sweet patchouli perfumes in recent years. Does this mean that they are trying to re-produce Angel? No, it means that the idea of a sweet patchouli composition has become an accepted conceptual category from which to commence the creation of a new fragrance.

All of this raises the question of Beauty versus Novelty. What are perfumers really aiming for? My distinct impression is that the vast majority of perfumers are attempting to make beautiful perfumes. Even if they are interested in creating original perfumes, beauty seems nearly always to be a constraining factor. Beautiful perfumes are a pleasure to wear and to smell, bringing us back to the importance of pleasure once again.

I imagine that niche perfumers (although that category is itself a contested one, see: The Question of Niche ) are aiming at both beauty and novelty. What are consumers paying for? It seems to me likely that most consumers are far more interested in beauty and wearability than in novelty. For one thing, the average perfume consumer is utterly ignorant of the vast majority of 16,000+ perfumes in existence. So, from the perspective of people with limited experience, every single fragrance which they try is likely to smell “new”, whether there exist a handful or five hundred other perfumes with very similar compositions and sensory effects.

This is, of course, why marketing campaigns become far more important than perfume quality in successful launches of mainstream perfumes. Most people have no resources by which to decide whether a perfume is great or not. They can say only that it smells good on them, having been lured in to buy it by an effective marketing campaign. Many people probably also receive perfumes as gifts for the very same reasons, but once they own them, they are likely to wear them, provided that it is possible to do so. Thus wearability becomes essential to successful mass market launches and companies such as Proctor & Gamble, which manufacture thousands of personal care products, are obviously aware of this fact, which therefore must serve as a fundamental constraint on any perfume which they launch.

These issues are not new. The truth is that people have been perfuming themselves for thousands of years, and yet, still today, perfumery has not been widely recognized as the huitième art. Why not? Is it because our intimate absorption or “ingestion” (through our cells) makes perfume appreciation a different sort of process than, say, visual art appreciation? Does this bring us back to the question of disparate reception caused by the physiological factors which make perfumes repulsive to some people while having the capacity to induce veritable olfactory ecstasy in others?

What say you, O Fragrant Friends?

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Tower of Babel, Exhibit A: ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques

I am often surprised by the strong emotions expressed by perfumistas in response to what they take to be unjust criticism. I have seen this in reviews of perfumes, remarks about houses, and—to my great surprise—even the criticism of books of perfume criticism! People are sometimes very touchy about negative criticism, and they seem to take it personally when someone comes along with a decidedly negative opinion about an object of their esteem.

I am struck by the tenor of offense taken above all in the arena of perfume, because I do not see such offense being taken in other, possibly analogous, realms. Take the case of food. I love anchovies, black licorice, eggplant, and okra, but lots of people hate all four, and some people I know hate some but love others of the items in that list. My favorite sparkling mineral water is Gerolsteiner, but a friend of mine hates it for what he regards as its metallic quality. Our difference in opinions in these cases is not a cause for any sort of strife or contention whatsoever, and I don't think that the people whom I happen to know are exceptional in this regard. People seem more often than not to have no difficulty whatsoever in disagreeing about such things.

No one gets all bent out of shape because someone else hates a food item which they love. Yes, there is a problem if someone attempts to force feed such a food to someone who hates it, but how often does that happen in reality? No, instead of inciting riots or waging wars over such matters of taste, people tend to treat the issue in the manner of adults, aware that personal preferences are determined by all sorts of contingent historical and probably biological factors which together make it seem absurd to say that one of the two people who disagree about, say, the value of anchovies, is somehow wrong, deficient, benighted, stupid, or worse: devoid of taste.

Now there are food items which self-styled epicureans or “foodies” (a.k.a. snobs) may shun, and we may secretly harbor negative attitudes toward those who consume Cool Whip, fried pork rinds, Velveeta, Little Debbies, and any number of other low-brow foods which strike us as inedible, if not revolting. But we generally keep these matters to ourselves. Who really cares, in the end, what other people eat?

Okay, it's true: I should perhaps confess that in line at the grocery store I myself do often marvel at the items in other people's carts. As they pile up on the conveyor belt box after box, after can after can, after bottle after bottle of “stuff” which I wouldn't consume if I were paid to do so, I realize, once again, how people really differ quite a lot when it comes to what they are willing and like to ingest. And it's not a matter of price, it seems, either. Some of the items which I see in other people's carts actually cost quite a lot of money, relative to the sorts of foods I typically buy. In the end, whatever the reason may be, we value different things. Our preferences diverge rather radically, but the tally of our grocery bill may end up being pretty much the same.

In the world of perfume, I see the same vast range of preferences, but, for some reason, people bristle at the condemnation of perfumes which they love, and they scoff when they learn of people who love perfumes which they hate. In an incredibly rich discussion of The Question of Niche, a number of savvy perfumista interlocutors weighed in on the nature of niche perfume and whether niche is really better than mass-market perfume, as some seem convinced is true.

While some enlightened perfumistas are able to transcend such categories and labels altogether to assess each perfume as an entity in and of itself, others remain attached the idea that niche is somehow better than non-niche perfume, even in the face of counterexamples of great perfumes available at discount emporia for a fraction of the price of many niche or luxury perfumes. What accounts for the fact that, in the area of food, people are much less easily frazzled about disagreements in evaluation than when it comes to perfume?

To offer another example, I fondly recall having met a fellow in Trinidad (he was driving a tour bus in which I was riding) who told me that his favorite food in the entire world was Spam. He was fully prepared to pay a great deal of money and make an extraordinary effort to buy Spam because he loved it so much. I found this pronouncement somewhat curious—and do not actually recall the context of the conversation in which this topic arose—but I found it rather endearing that this fellow should have a such passion for that foodstuff, despite the fact that I myself find it beneath contempt. To him, it was manna from heaven; to me, just pig parts in a blender. I believe that I even made a negative remark about the product, to which he chuckled in response. No offense taken: he knew that some people hate the stuff, but he had no problem with that. It wasn't that he thought that we Spam haters were somehow wrong. No, he simply did not care. As far as he was concerned, people like me made it the case that there was more Spam left in the universe for him to consume!

What I've observed in the case of perfume, in contrast, is that people tend to get very emotional about differences in opinion. Negative reviews are often scathing, and in some cases I'd say they verge on puerility, with the reviewer fuming in the manner of a toddler whose toy has been taken away. Some people act as though the very existence of a perfume which they abhor is some sort of crime against humanity. On the other hand, when someone condemns in the most excoriating of terms perfumes which they love, people may become equally worked up. They react as though they have been personally attacked when they read the insults bellowed out by those who hate their beloved perfumes.

Now, one reason for the distinction in the realm of perfume versus the realm of food could simply be that perfume is capable of occupying a public space and thus inflicting itself upon all those who happen to be situated in the environs of the wearer. Like second-hand smoke, unwanted perfume may well induce discomfort and anger in those who have been subjected to it against their will. Indeed, the entire story of the anti-perfume backlash of the 1990s can be explained as a reaction to this public aspect of perfume, with the self-appointed perfume police stepping in with interventionist measures designed to tutor wearers of Poison and other notorious—or legendary, as you like—perfumes to cease and desist from their anti-social behavior patterns.

I do not believe that this is only a perceived public health issue, however. My distinct impression is that people think that there is a truth about perfumes such that being wrong about them is a failure on the part of the perfumista who likes what “some say” no one should like, or who hates what “some say” is worthy of praise.

On reflection, I have often wondered whether in many of these cases we are not simply talking about different things altogether, and this is where the idea of the Tower of Babel arises in the world of perfume, it seems to me. I honestly suspect that in many cases we may simply be talking past each other when we discuss perfumes, because either the words we are using mean completely different things, or else the objects to which our words appear to refer are really quite different.

All of this sounds quite abstract, I realize, so let me offer as Exhibit A: État Libre d'Orange Sécrétions Magnifiques. My first and only experience of this perfume was during a mystery vial trial, where some evil perfumista had slipped Sécrétions Magnifiques in among the selections which I was to weigh in on without knowledge of any of the perfumes' identities, provenance, or cost. I am sorry to have to report that my sniffing of Sécrétions Magnifiques actually made me so sick that I developed a Pavlovian aversion to mystery vials and found myself unable to finish the rest of the trial.

To this day, I think of the composition of Sécrétions Magnifiques as a facsimile of a serial killer's crime scene. Clearly there is at least some sort of correspondence between my experience of this perfume and the creators' intention, judging from the image which they chose to adorn the bottle. They obviously created it explicitly to have a semen-like aspect to it, which some among us find quite repulsive, to put it mildly.

Others, of course, have raved ad nauseam about how brilliant and masterful this creation is. Turin and Sanchez rank Sécrétions Magnifiques among the top 100 “classic” perfumes. They apparently acknowledge in their recently published slim compilation of their 96 five-star reviews from Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (of which twelve have apparently been “updated”) that their list does not really pick out the 100 best perfumes of all time, but only the best which they happened to have sniffed.

In any case, my question is simply this: if we read Turin's review of Sécrétions Magnifiques and the positive reviews of others who praise this perfume, are they describing what they smell as a “serial killer's crime scene”? The answer, as far as I have seen, is: No.

In other words, the Tower of Babel problem in this case is not that some people are reviewing perfumes as artworks and others are assessing their wearability (It seems to me that, in their first book, Turin and Sanchez cannot make up their mind which they are trying to do, but that's another story). It's not the case that the people who hate Sécrétions Magnifiques are concerned with the homely hoi polloi criterion of wearability, whereas those who hail it as a masterpiece are judging it in the hoity-toity terms of lofty art criticism.

No, the reality is that the people who praise Sécrétions Magnifiques appear to be the very same people who perceive it as a floral aquatic perfume, along with perhaps some metallic qualities. They do not “get” the blood, the semen, and the murder implement aspects of this composition at all. It seems quite likely, then, that those of us who hate Sécrétions Magnifiques actually smell something entirely different from those who do not. In other words, the radical difference in opinion stems from the fact that some people who sniff this perfume are anosmic or hyposmic to precisely those components of the composition which make others among us sick.

This case raises the question, then, whether those who laud Sécrétions Magnifiques or those who loathe it are right or wrong. In thinking about this question, it occurred to me that there are possible analogies in other realms. People who are incapable of perceiving color do not make good art critics, and people who are hard of hearing do not make good music critics. What about perfume critics? Should they smell everything or only an average amount of everything?

Olfactory acuteness for each and every component of perfume would seem, as is every other trait of human beings, to be distributed over a bell curve. Are those of us who smell what those who praise Sécrétions Magnifiques as a masterpiece do not smell situated at the extreme tail of the bell curve? Are we the ones, then, who should recuse ourselves from reviewing perfumes in which those components figure?

Are some of us simply too sensitive, and so are we wrong in thinking that the perfume is repulsive—similar to the manner in which people who think that they “hear voices” are wrong? Sure, such people may be more sensitive—hypersensitive, in fact—to environmental stimuli, but in reality they are not the people to whom we turn in deciding what exists and what does not. Are we who dislike Sécrétions Magnifiques intensely, then, somehow “sick” for smelling too much? Should we figure out a way to “dial down” our olfactory acuteness?

It seems to me that it doesn't make a lot of sense, in the end, to say that one or the other group is right and the other is wrong. The fact is that we are different. Just as the factors which conspire to give individual people their unique scent affect how perfume will smell on their skin (see The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth, for more on this...), so, too, do variable factors determine to some extent what we smell.

The best perfume critics may not be those who are hyperosmic, even if it is true that they detect more than the average person does. On the other hand, those who are hyposmic, too, will have their own unique take on a perfume such as Sécrétions Magnifiques. In the end, a reviewer's opinions reveal one and one thing alone: what that particular person perceives in smelling a given perfume. Nothing follows from that evaluation for any other person because they may or may not be relevantly similar to the reviewer.

I should perhaps opine here that, in the case of Sécrétions Magnifiques, I strongly suspect that the composition itself, sniffed alone in a blind testing, without knowledge of the bottle design, its provenance, and the fact that it was launched by a “daring” niche house, would nary garner the attention that this perfume has. Let's face it: the whole production has a vaguely adolescent facet to it. An ejaculating penis? Ooooh!!! Wow!! Cool!!! I can imagine teenagers flush with hormones exclaiming with glee. To be perfectly frank (quoi d'autre?), I would be very, very surprised, if the folks at ELdO were not snickering all the way to the bank at the success of this heist.

Am I merely picking on Turin and Sanchez (again?! groan the groupies, whose duct tape is magically dissolved by this site...)? No. I base this conjecture on the content of the non-negative reviews of Sécrétions Magnifiques. Read the reviews closely, and you will discover that the people who do not hate this composition describe it in innocuous terms. Since when was a masterpiece of perfumery so banal? I ask most sincerely. It seems equally obvious that some of the people who praise this perfume are simply parroting the self-appointed prophets of perfume. If “the experts” say that something is a masterpiece, then we should agree, should we not?

The Tower of Babel arises in comparing perfume reviews in the first instance because different people appear truly to be smelling different things. Despite the fact that a perfume may have been drawn from the very same vat, some sniffers will find different components of the perfume salient than will others. The upshot of all of this is that the most which we can learn from reading other reviewers' assessments is that there exist people who perceive it in that way. They are neither right nor wrong, and their opinions should be taken into consideration when it seems that a perfume which we are considering wearing actually makes other people physically ill. But within the privacy of our own homes, anything goes, so go right ahead, it's all the same to me: eat Twinkies, drink Koolaid, and wear Sécrétions Magnifiques!