The social significance of perfume: Introduction

Sécrétions Magnifiques, État Libre d'Orange

Denyse Beaulieu interviews Antoine Lie on her fantastic blog, Grain de musc. Monsieur Lie has created scents for Burberry, Calvin Klein, Givenchy, Comme des Garçons and other titans of the perfume world.  Beaulieu invites Lie to speak about Sécrétions Magnifiques, a fragrance he created for the iconoclastic house of État Libre d’Orange that is one of the most loved and hated perfumes in recent memory.

In one of the introductory paragraphs, Beaulieu writes:
A few days before my appointment with Lie in Givaudan’s Parisian offices near the Arc de Triomphe, Catholic fundamentalists destroyed two of Andres Serrano’s pieces at the Fondation Lambert in Avignon, one of which was Piss Christ, famously used by the ultra-conservative US senator Jesse Helms back in 1987 to challenge the National Endowment for the Arts program. So I kick off the conversation with a parallel between Piss Christ and Sécrétions Magnifiques…

Andres Serrano, "Piss Christ" (1987)

This is the first time that I have seen someone compare a groundbreaking critical work of contemporary art to a perfume that SNIFFMEALLOVER on Makeupalley.com characterized as such:
Disgusting. Brings to mind the smell of blood and sweat. Why would anybody want to smell like this?? And pay real money for it??? Lasts forever. I could not wash it off my skin. Had to wash my clothes. I am getting rid of my sample. This is the only perfume ever that made me want to puke.(1)

In Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s book, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, Turin gives Sécrétions Magnifiques five stars:
Stupendous secretions!  The Dada name had me drooling.  The fragrance is both less and far more than I expected: It is not an animalic (supposedly) raunchy thing that works on the assumption that we collect soiled underwear or frequent the same nightclub as cats and dogs.  It is, however, an elegant fresh floral…given a demonic twist by a touch of a stupendous bilge note… (Sanchez, Tania and Luca Turin.  Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. New York: Penguin Books, 2009: 490)

Might there be a day when the Roman Catholic church publicly denounces Lies’ perfume creation as blasphemous?  Perhaps.  Would it be possible for the United States Congress to pass legislation against fragrances that allude to sex in such a blatant way?  Most likely not.  The difference lies in the role of perfume in modern society as a luxury item, as a cosmetic, as a consumable and manufactured product sold for individual use.  The publicness of art, the fact that one can view it at a gallery or museum, allows for collective scrutiny of its merits to society.  Serrano, a Brazilian artist who has continued to create art that is political, is one of many artists including Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe who conservative politicians demonized to end the public funding of individual artists through the NEA.

The distinction between works of art and perfume lies in the fact that perfume is considered a luxury item, and the companies that produce them do not ask for public funding.  The museums around the world that show Serrano’s Piss Christ usually also depend on some state funding, which opens the content of their exhibitions to political and moral scrutiny.  But perfume hasn’t always been outside of criticism by the powers that be.  From the time of the Egyptians to the era right before the Industrial Revolution, perfumes held power because of the cultural practices to which they were essential.

In the coming days, I will write about the social significance of perfumes, starting with the famous Biblical passage, The Song of Solomon.

[Author’s Note:  I love Sécrétions Magnifiques.  It’s one of the most startling olfactory experiences I have ever been privileged to have.]

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