For the Love of Perfume: Blogging and its discontents

Chanel No. 5 Perfume (Blue/Yellow) by Andy Warhol

Full disclosure: I am an amateur enthusiast of perfume on Stage 3 of NST’s brilliantly described progression of perfumania. In my short time as a blogger, I have encountered questions such as are there too many of them, are bloggers just diletantes seeking monetary or critical fame, are they using the platform towards means that have nothing to do with perfume at all, etc. Recent posts in Pere de Pierre, OlfactaRama, and Feminine Things raise such questions to an impressive number of dissenting views.

As print magazines slowly become extinct, writers who used to get paid very little for their work are paid even less for electronic versions of what they would have written anyway. In the art world, a place with which I am very familiar, critics have been asking themselves the same questions as in the perfume world: How do we stay away from monied interests (the art market) and retain our independent voices? What point of view can we bring to the dialog of good versus bad that is unique? How can we continue to write about what we love when there are so many voices chiming in claiming to be experts in what we do and undermining our authority?

Jerry Saltz

In the case of the art world, one highly visible and divisive figure around the status of the critic is Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer-prize winning critic for New York Magazine, judge on the reality television show, “Work of Art,” and social media commentator. Saltz constantly struggles to keep his numbers of Facebook followers below 5000 by doing periodic purges of those who do not participate in his many discussions about art and politics. His use of Facebook as a platform is controversial among critics who think he is dumbing down criticism. Saltz’s writing is down to earth, plain speaking, passionate and yet highly authoritative because he knows the subject of which he writes. He is not afraid to tell an artist that they made an ass of themselves, nor does he shy away from hobnobbing with powerful gallerists and auctioneers who the public perceive to hold the purse-strings and therefore make him less impartial. In my opinion, Saltz’s approach is populist, democratic, and refreshing in the face of so much pretentious elitism in the art world.

Artist and blogger Sharon Butler writes this in the Huffington Post:

When I started blogging at Two Coats of Paint, blogs were almost exclusively considered the domain of exhibitionist teenagers and oversharing adults. This reputation was somewhat deserved, but I still loved the immediacy of the process, the ability to link easily to related online content, the conversations that developed with other artists, and the small but generous art-blogging community. Then Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools emerged and expanded the internet’s potential as an engine of dialogue and mobilization well beyond the whims of narcissistic shut-ins.(1)

After attending a conference about whether or not there was a “crisis” in art criticism, painter and professor Laurie Fendrich writes this in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

No, there is no crisis, because millions of people who were never heard before now write art criticism, and write it about artists and art heretofore ignored. They put it out there on their individual blog sites, non-paying group blog sites, or on their Facebook and Twitter pages. These millions of voices, dispersed over the vastness of the Internet, bleating out iterations of “art criticism,” have opened up the art world. At the same time, they’ve weakened the chance for any consensus to form around what constitutes good art, as well as diminished the possibility for particular critics writing in such publications as The New York Times or The New Yorker to convey authoritative opinions about art.

The panel members touched on all the relevant points—that art critics now write without editors (code for the fact that an awful lot of art writing is horrific), that the role of critics as taste-makers no longer appeals to either artists or the general public (who are you to tell me what art I like?), that critics today eschew making judgments (a fascinating topic in itself), and finally, that the conflation of art, spectacle, fashion, movies, and general celebrity culture into one mushed party has deformed art criticism to the point where it frequently amounts to no more than celebrity news or lists of auction prices. (2)

I’ve enjoyed reading Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s “Perfumes: The Guide,” and Chandler Burr‘s books and his reviews in the New York Times. There are around one hundred blogs about perfume, and there are ones that are exemplary for me, like Now Smell This, Grain de Musc, Olfactoria and Persolaise, among many others. Considering how much money the perfume industry makes, it’s a relatively small number of writers in comparison to art criticism, where almost every major publication has a staff art writer.

Yes, there are experts, people who have worked in the industry of perfumery, who know all of the players and history, can identify every note in Estée Lauder’s Beautiful, and tell you the exact year that Guerlain moved its boutique to the Champs-Elysées. I will never try to challenge their authority in any way. I will, however, claim my right to creatively research and write about something that I love, and continue to participate in this great democracy of ours. If you want to read it, great! If not, I’m okay with it, too. What I hope to do here is bring something else to the table. I want people who love perfume to understand how it figures profoundly into our culture, that it isn’t a frivolous and unnecessary accoutrement to our already spoiled lives. As I write, I learn something about the world, too. Perfumes add beauty to our mundane realities, allow us to travel to far off lands without ever leaving where we are. There are few things that can transform our world in such an immaterial way. Writing about these ephemeral and fleeting experiences can raise the level of interest in scents as an art form, elevate it so that there will be a scent critic in every major newspaper around the world. Writing is the only way we can to allow perfumes, and our mortal selves, to live on for just a little while longer.

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