The Art of Scent : 1889-2012 — Exhibition Review

The Art of Scent Installation View Image courtesy of Museum of Art and Design, photo credit Brad Farwell.
The Art of Scent
Installation View
Image courtesy of Museum of Art and Design, photo credit Brad Farwell.

In 1917, a French American artist named Marcel Duchamp submitted a work of art he called “Fountain” to be exhibited at the first New York salon to be held by the Society of Independent Artists.  “Fountain” consisted of a porcelain urinal that Duchamp signed and dated with “R Mutt 1917.”  Needless to say it caused great scandal, and reverberations from Duchamp’s ironic gesture are still felt today in the realms of Minimalism, Pop Art, and Conceptual Art.  By choosing an ordinary, industrially manufactured object and exhibiting it in the context of an art exhibition, Duchamp radically changed the definition of the word “art” by showing us how a snow shovel can be a work of art (In advance of the broken arm (En prévision du bras cassé), 1915), as can a bottle rack (Bottle Rack (also called Bottle Dryer or Hedgehog) (Egouttoir or Porte-bouteilles or Hérisson), 1914).  An artwork’s status is contingent upon the context in which it is viewed–take that shovel and hang it on the wall in a museum, and its status is legitimized as art.

Can perfume be defined as art?  Yes, says Chandler Burr, in his exhibition, The Art of Scent: 1889-2012, on view at the Museum of Art and Design in New York until February 24, 2013.  Burr, the first curator of olfactory art at the museum, was formerly the scent critic for the New York Times and is the author of well-known books on perfume.

The Art of Scent is the first museum exhibition of its kind in the United States, presenting a survey of twelve perfumes.  Beginning with Guerlain’s Jicky (1889), the show also includes Chanel No. 5 (1921), Clinique Aromatics Elixir (1971), Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir (1982), Estée Lauder Pleasures (1995), Hermès Osmanthe Yunnan (2004), and ending with Maison Martin Margiela Untitled (2012).

Walking into the exhibition, one is confronted with a large room where along a white wall one finds perfectly formed curved indentations, at the base of which are small holes through which perfumes are released when your head moves close to smell, rather like taking a sip from a water fountain.  The exhibition was designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfrew Associates, a firm well-known for the High Line.  If the white cube became the standard for late 20th century display of painting and sculpture, it works even better for olfactory art.  With little else to distract, the experience of smell becomes the dominant sensory input. Taken out of its packaging, perfume is stripped of its identity as a billion dollar industry and is presented naked, autonomous and regal.

But I wonder if this is not a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  To display perfume in a setting where its origins are hidden mimics the white cube logic of the contemporary museum and gallery, thereby using space to justify perfume as a “legitimate” art form.   In the didactic texts for each scent, Burr connects the discourse of perfumery with that of art history.  Take for example this statement regarding synthetic materials used in the creation of Jicky: “By freeing olfactory artists from an exclusively natural palette, they turned scent into an artistic medium, and made Jicky one of the first true works of olfactory art.”  What Burr is getting at here is abstract painting and atonal music, both forms that arose in the late 19th century.  Burr links the radical gesture behind non-objective art to perfumery’s bold move towards taking aromatic materials and making them unrecognizable.  Burr writes of Ernest Beaux, the creator of Chanel No. 5: “Beaux, an exemplary modernist, built a traditional French floral scent, then broke with that tradition by cladding it in a skin of new synthetics called aldehydes.”  Burr likens No. 5 to the glass wall of modern skyscraper architecture made popular by the International School that rose to prominence as a style at the same time No. 5 was made.

I applaud Burr’s attempts to create a different discursive context.  Perfume needs its own language, but I’m not sure that comparisons to modern art is the way to go.  I was able to tease these interpretations out as a visitor to the show because I know a bit about modern art, but without the visual accompaniment necessary to make these connections, I doubt many people would understand them.  How do the aldehydes in No. 5 function like the skin of a building?  How did Francis Fabron, in the making of Givenchy’s L’Interdit, “transform nature into an abstraction”?  What recreates “the diaphanous quality of light” Burr claims is present in Osmanthe Yunnan?  How do all of these metaphors and similes used in the didactic material for The Art of Scent differ from sensationalist claims made in perfume ad copy?

All of the scents featured in the show are made by large corporations, and the medieval practice of apprenticeship still lives strong in the perfume world, where professionals are trained in only a handful of schools controlled by corporate interests.  The “recipe” for each perfume is guarded like Fort Knox, and billions are spent marketing the scents through advertising.  Despite Burr’s attempts at distancing perfume from its commercial label, the names of the companies that “lent” the scents are noted prominently in each explanatory text.  Not a single indie perfumer made it into the exhibition, but perhaps that is planned for some time in the future.

The history of modernism has been a story of the dance between sensory perception and the subjectivity of the viewer. Painting became modernism’s driving discursive force, starting with the impressionists in the 19th century and then abstractionists in the 20th to establish the notion of art for art’s sake. Art, rather than be at the service of politics or religion as it had been for centuries, could now be thought of as having its own historical context, its own teleological development, its own sense of self-consciousness.  This is how the term “the art world” was born: through the creation of a church-like space devoid of reference to the outside, art separated itself from the rest of society.  Perfume’s rise in the world came about during the establishment of a bourgeois society focused on consumption, mass production, and an urban lifestyle.  If it were to be considered as art, perfume must rise above its status as commodity and free itself of rigid and outmoded industry practices.

The museum should be a space to explore a new kind of perfume, a Neo-Perfume art movement if you will, that breaks with the past to write its own history.  With the number of independent perfume makers growing and contemporary artists choosing perfume as a an under-explored artistic medium, a new future for perfume can be made possible.

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