Monday, May 25, 2009

Art Revered for the Sake of Reverence?

In the film “How to steal a million” (William Wyler,1966) the plot revolves around a prized Cellini Venus lent by the heroine’s father to a respected Paris museum; the minor detail is the Venus statuette was not sculpted by Cellini but by Nicole's grandfather, who is a forger! (Art frauds are nothing new) The audience is kept at such a distance thanks to technological systems guarding the art piece that no one can discern the truth.
Yet audiences and critics don’t want to see the sculpture itself, they insist in admiring its value. It’s a monetary value, to be sure, but, more than that, a value of prestige. The work of art is exalted not merely because it is beautiful, but because it has been globally tagged as beautiful. [Of course, if you missed that day at school, art history courses are available online to discuss this in more detail.]

On another real-life occasion a lady reading a newspaper exclaims “By Jove, a Guido Reni painting has sold for X million dollars! Who is this Reni, anyway?!” Another customer at the same café informs her he’s a famous painter. “But how did he manage to become so famous? Those painters have it good! Ah, he’s a 17th century painter, I see…”. And with that decisive tidbit read in the length of the article she returns to her coffee appeased.
What do these incidents teach us and how are they related to art and subsequently perfumery (a form of art for some)?

First of all any piece put on a pedestal is there to be worshipped, it isn’t asking or giving anything really. This is true with paintings and sculptures at the Louvre (your arms would fall off if you attempted to touch the Venus de Milo, such is the guarding!) but also of anything that has attained the status of “masterpiece” such as legendary perfumes (Shalimar, Chanel No.5, Mitsouko, Miss Dior, Cabochard) Worshipping an art piece ~especially if we are not certain of its authenticity or its well-preserved state or if we do not instinctively like it~ transforms it into a fetish: we do not derive pleasure from it in real time but from the pleasure it had induced in the past! Perhaps to people whom we did not even know! Since the current Shalimar in production is but a pale spectre of itself, how much of this reverence is genuinely heart-felt and how much is cultural upbringing? And how poignant the line in another film is, "The Object of Beauty" (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1991) in which the rich couple debate whether to sell the wife’s Henry Moore sculpture, right until it gets stolen, whereas the deaf-mute maid admires it for its beauty rather than the value it represents voicing this immortal line: “It spoke to me; and I heard”.
In artistic terms, the phenomenon of feeling a pre-digested and codified emotion is called Kitsch.

Usually “Kitsch [is] defined as an aesthetically impoverished object of shoddy production, meant more to identify the consumer with a newly acquired class status than to invoke a genuine aesthetic response”. [1]
But in the words of Hermann Broch [2], Kitsch is not only a replica or a vulgar upstart but the entire Modern Art genre from Romanticism onwards ~the latter emphasized the need for expressive and evocative art work, you see~, since art is being made unto a purpose in itself and to be consumed as beauty. In other words, it’s being produced as a museum piece on a pedestal! Broch also accuses kitsch of not participating in the development of art, having its focus directed at the past.

Secondly, we note the graceful, forgiving halo of time. In our example of Guido Reni, if the painter lived, the lady would be livid on how he attained such selling prices. Now that he’s dead, somehow it is considered proper and justified to be famous and valued expensively. Reverting to perfumes, an old perfume is certainly viewed as better than a new release. Or isn’t it? This is especially significant if we notice that in the discussion there was no mention whatsoever of the beauty of Reni’s paintings, only the time-frame in which they were created and the fact that they still circulate. And there is also a kind of appeased class envy: if Reni was alive, there would be some, whereas now there is none. Additionally a crucial aspect isn’t pointed: someone sold the painting for X millions and therefore profited that amount. However that monetary aspect ~which is rampant in the perfumes auctioning as well~ justified via the values of perceived beauty and time elapsed is eluding the aspiring middle-class audience who is brought up to believe in humanistic values instead. According to that Kant dictum, values are intrinsic (thus beauty is a thing of its own and not “in the eye of the beholder”, otherwise there can not be universal masterpieces and the Mona Lisa could be equated with Lucy in the Field with Flowers at MOBA); or alternatively they are born out of a plane of existence more elevated than the audience’s own. Enter the sanctioned plane of the perfume critic who surely “knows”, therefore his/her opinion is more valid than one’s own experience. But that is also another manifestation of kitsch in the sense explained above!
This is why we read such statements as:
“I tried it [Douce Amère by Serge Lutens] for the first time last night and it did not work for me, sadly. Am I just not far enough along in this hobby to appreciate frags like this? Will I like it later? I can tell that it's well composed and appreciate it-- but I don't like the way that it smells”. [3]
And why blind tests between a cheaply produced perfume sur-mesure and a real expensive one do not always play out as one would have expected!

Virginia Woolf captured these problematics in her famous "middlebrow" discussion. [4]Whereas low-brows like that they like, crude as it might be or not (Emannuel Kant describes the direct appeal to the senses as "barbaric" which might be a wonderful reference when experiencing Dioressence, formally introduced as “le parfum barbare”! Think about it!), high-brows like what their elitist stance manifests into creating. Which leaves middle-brows: On the whole they are educated people who aspire into bettering themselves through the appreciation of art.
This indadvertedly reminded me of Philipe Martinet’s scorn on Ingmar Bergman[5]:
“He is the hero of that peculiar creature of our times -the wannabe, the pseudo, the pretend-intellectual who finds the incomprehensible to be profound, the obscure to be enlightening and the disgusting to be ennobling”.
Yet, editor Russell Lynes satirized Virginia Woolf’s concept in the article "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow" [6], attributing the distinctions to a means of upholding cultural superiority and subtly lauded middlebrows in their zeal. His parodying of the highbrow claim that the products a person uses distinguishes his/her level of cultural worth, by satirically identifying the products tied to a middlebrow person, has a real and tangible significance in the world of perfume use. Are we better, more educated, more discerning, and more “in the know” because we appreciate an obscure niche scent such as By Kilian Liaisons Dangereuses? Is the effect even more pronounced and pointed as an external attribute because it costs a lot of money too? Does the trend of high-end exclusive lines within mainstream brands (Prada and Armani boutique exclusives, Guerlain Les Parisiennes, Chanel Les Exclusifs etc.), constitute an aesthetic middlebrow manifestation apart from a marketing technique?

Let’s also examine the instance in which an artist (a perfumer?) is invited to spend the day amidst bourgeois society, where he/she is bombarded with questions pertaining to inner meanings of art and philosophy, resulting in equating the artist with how once upon a time the court jester was regarded: someone to provide pleasure and some degree of the inner workings of life and art (Compare with the Shakespearean fool in "King Lear")

I do not purport to have all the answers, but the discussion is open to all and I welcome your input. Milan Kundera said it best in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being":

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch”
May we all remember that when faced with a revered perfume!

Thanks to Angela of NST for inspiring this stream of thoughts in the first place.

Kitsch definition
Hermann Broch overview
[3] MUA fragrance board quote
[4]Woolf, Virginia. "Middlebrow." The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays. London, Hogarth P., 1942.
What the heck is
[6]Lynes, Russell. The Tastemakers. New York, Harper, 1954.
Pics of How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburna & Peter O'Toole via and Absolut ad via gone4sure.files.wordpress


  1. Oh, my sister !
    Again, we are on a similar wavelength....

    I JUST bought a brand-new, small book by Roger Scruton yesterday, entitled 'Beauty".

    It's about the philosophical implications, as the author is a philosopher.

    I agree.
    There is need- always- to be brutally honest with oneself regarding motivation, intention.

  2. My dear I,

    why does it not surprise me we agree? :-)

    What you say is exactly what is so difficult to achieve: being brutally honest with oneself! Sometimes we tend to doubt our initial reaction, as so often there is some cognitive process in relation to perfumes' use (we all know how they can behave differently from test to test!); and sometimes we doubt our reaction because we feel somehow "less" in view of a glowing review or something or we feel we're gone overboard with our enthusiasm on a new release (is it the thrill of the NEW only?).
    In those instances what methodology could be applied into segregating our feelings and thoughts? Is there an emotional gut instinct on like-and/or-dislike (Certainly! and is this lowbrow?)and another intellectual reaction of "this is interesting, textured, well-crafted" regardless of the former (And is this a highbrow manifestation or middlebrow aspiration)?
    The issue is mightly complicated...

  3. Fiordiligi12:14

    What a really interesting and beautifully-written piece, my dear E. Absolutely fascinating. I don't purport to have any answers but find the whole premise to be very thought-provoking and stimulating.

    Dear Chaya, Roger Scruton is a British philosopher I believe. Sounds interesting.

    Thank you!

    It's a holiday in the UK today too, you know.

  4. Hello my dear D!

    Hope you're having a good time, I didn't recall it being a holiday in the UK as well.

    Thanks for the kind words. It's a complex matter and I'm not sure how it could be summed up in a "recipe". I believe it can't. I really didn't want to bring in cliches into this, so I hope I don't sound too vague or possibly forlorn in my worrying. :-)

  5. It reminded me of one not so distant experience.
    I had never been into Italian Renaissance, it being drummed into us as the bestest thing ever, without actually explaining what is so best about it. The professors had used slides taken from reproductions in old books - which can work perfectly well for architecture or sculpture when it's a really really good book but for anything in colour, it sucks big time. So the whole Renaissance thingy was kitschified for me - I was asked to join the choir of oh's and aah's - me, who is irreverent by nature.
    When I landed in Florence of all places, I was strongly suspicious. Luckily, Florence simply is, regardless of some beyond-the-Alps professors who expect automatic understanding. And, the natives indeed do know all the background details that actually lead to understanding. And to further disdain towards kitschification. One particularly pathetic example springs into my mind. Those two angioletti at the lower part of the Sistine Madonna - they come on various useless souvenirs in all sizes and renderings here. The Sistine Madonna is in Dresden but people know or seem to know the pretty little angels that can be bought in Florence, printed on things. I fail to see any logic but for kitsch.

    Now, being in the know helps. In a certain sense - it doesn't make kitsch less kitschy directly but there's one person less who would shed those two tears. Instead, the in the know will ponder and find out that the pretty picture of playing kittens is attacking the primary circuits in the brains. Which pretty well stops the tear no. 2 and continues to no. 3 and the subsequent stream for Oh how can be humankind, whose brighter members wrote Romeo and Juliet, painted the Sistine ceiling etc., so deceivable by shiny purtty surface..... Or maybe I'm an oversensitive art historian combined with rather sadistic teacher?

  6. Anonymous15:39

    I've been enjoying your blog for quite awhile now, but this is my first comment -- what a fascinating article! Are you suggesting that the reformulated classics, like Shalimar, et al., represent a kind of kitsch in perfumery? They are offered as a second tear -- how wonderful all of us are moved by this together? As someone relatively new to the obsession of perfume, I've encountered many of the classics only in their reformulated and usually weakened form (edt only), and haven't been impressed, but I've considered them zombie perfumes, living dead approximations of what they once were.

    On the whole, I would say that my reaction to perfume is decidedly lowbrow. I love the history behind it (it's one of the reasons I love your blog so much), I even love the chemistry behind it, and I love how the marketing often makes me laugh. But first and foremost it is a sensory experience for me. And I do believe that it is unique among the art forms in that my own body, in the form of my own personal scent, must collaborate with the artist. A 'masterpiece' on someone else may not be a 'masterpiece' on me.

    Once again, thank you for the thought-provoking article.


  7. Hi L!!

    Of course I didn't expect to read a cliche comment from you and indeed you delivered, and so thoughtfully too!

    I am preparing that piece we talked about and now of course I must go and take a pic of my two wooden little angels (which are tucked in some drawer in my secretaire or so) and make them a small kitsch homage! :-D

    We had the same bad luck with slides as well in the University (which is why I always urge my own students to go open a book for Pete's sake!). It was great for the Neolithic longhouse (basically a standard Π) but terrible for Wassily Kadinsky (for the Comparative Civilisations class of all things, so one was expected to note details in saturation/hue/brushwork etc!)

    Playing kitties can be cute, but then cute in general can be kitsch too: the evocation of a sweet sentimentality of "awww, isn't it cute!" (I think you know what I mean). By the same token, Rennaisance taken out of its historical context ~and especially if one is conditioned to believe that the Middle Ages were the epoch of Belzebul and broomsticks, which they were not~ acquires the "isn't it pretty!" knee-jerk reaction which is the same as hanging reproductions of the Great Masters in the living room instead of supporting a living artist and buying an original work of art. We had this long discussion on another forum a propos some "cute" painter (Thomas Kincaid) and it was most stimulating.

    We should meet up one of these days! :-)

  8. Dear Karen,

    thank you so much for delurking and welcome to Perfume Shrine! I'm so glad you like it here and we mean to make it cozy for you.

    Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. It's a complex issue and I welcome any input. The fact is as you so wisely say, these are "zombie perfumes, living dead approximations".

    But yes, I am going one step further actually and suggesting (you got it!) that we're all collectively sheding that second tear "ah, isn't it wonderful how they made perfumes once upon a time" etc. I am proposing the perhaps ridiculous, perhaps earth-shattering (who knows!) idea that maybe all perfumery is a second tear production, as it relies upon perceived beauty (Do we judge "success" by how our perfume is received by others? Connoisseurs or not? We do...) and as it combines a prestige value (very obviously so) ans well as a de facto monetary value (being consumers' goods after all). It does seem to make a little sense, doesn't it?

    There is however that undeniable synergy between perfume, perfumer and wearer as you succinctly point out and I find that the most fascinating aspect of this whole business: some things "speak" for X reason and some do not for Y reason. Intriguing, is it not?

  9. Anonymous19:06

    Dear E,

    Posts like this are the reason I read your blog. And that is probably all I can say on this as the subject of this post would require a depth of thought and analysis I am incapable of at the moment. I will say that I like to think my likes and dislikes are based on visceral reactions to perfumes, art, music. etc., but that is probably naive. My love for Guerlain, the house, not always the perfume, is based mostly on the stories behind their perfumes, which are nothing if not clever and erudite marketing. I will always love Shalimar in its new, "dumbed-down" version because it was the only perfume I could stand in my first pregnancy, and had never smelled the vintage anyway. Thank you for another fantastic article, E.


  10. Natalia,

    thank you darling for stopping by and your most interesting comment.
    There's nothing wrong with having visceral reactions. IN fact this is exactly the kind of thing that I believe is genuine and should be applauded.
    You put it refreshingly honestly: yup, that Guerlain spin has been magnificently enticing and I admit I also like to romanticize its history and its past, even when I know that half of the stories (at least) are fabrications! At least they're nice fabrications, with style and elegance. Not trashy. ;-)
    It's lovely that you have such a good scent association with Shalimar. And I bet it's not the really, really dusmbed-down version either :O (There, now I am not following my own paradigm!!)

  11. Dear E, greatr article- as ever. I was just talking about this this weekend and the fact that I probably allow my romantic side to get the better of me when I think about the creation of the great scents.

    I think it's easy for us not to appreciate a masterpiece because it might be widely available or have become too rampantly available- I'm thinking of scents like L'Eau D'Issey or Tommy Girl here. Likewise it's very easy to think you should like a Picasso, or Chanel No 5 because other people think they are wonderful.

    I rather love How to Steal a Million by the way!

  12. Angela01:31

    What a fascinating post! There's so much to think about here that I'm sure I'll be chewing on it for days. Thank you!

  13. Helg,
    you inspired me with this post, I'll try and write something in similar vein as soon as I send my mom back home, she's distracting me with elaborate meals and family gossip. Since I live where I live, I often wonder what the hell the tourists see and I've already touched the subject in my previous blog entries but I just need to kick my ass to make something coherent.

    I think that everyone, or everyone with more IQ than teeth (well, you like this, you have it) have their favourite kitsch. My mom plagues the whole house with various angelic items, good part of them plasticky and shiny and oh-so-cute and I roll my eyes and then she rolls my eyes when I plague the remaining empty spots with my collection of blown-glass birds which are oh-so-cute and shiny, too. We're both otherwise rather normal and I even have a diploma in good taste but... hey. If I played a 24carat intellectual, it would be another sort of kitsch.

    By the way, I finally produced the blog entry about my possibly fabulous addictions, should you be interested, but it's not a good piece of writing. I just wanted to make something in decent time and I'm having rather bad time.

  14. Thanks K!

    Well, we do let our romantic side sneak in, don't we? (It's kinda fun!) There is a huge lump of truth in what you say: many things escape unappreciated just because they're under our noses. Especially when someone is relatively in the middle of the path to perfumista-hood, when they are sampling niche brands like mad. But are they all worth it? Not always and not each and every one. Then again, nor are all mainstream products on a par. So it widely varies. And how we determine which parameters come into play in the appreciation of great mastery: is it composition rigour (one needs training on this), is it pleasure derived (subjective as we discussed), is it good ingredients (they don't suffice alone), is it majority vote (Is the majority mostly correct? A HUGE can of worms here).

    A propos, and just because it needs being mentioned, Picasso himself had described his own paintings as "nonsense" and those who buy and appreciate them "fools" in an interview he had given. His tone was very scornful and provocative. I should find it and post it some time. ;-)

    I had a feeling you might appreciate the film reference ;-)

  15. Angela,

    I have to thank you for instigating the spark on this, like I said on the piece itself, so thanks for stopping by and commenting! Hope if you find you have some additional input you come back and let us know. I'm open to all opinions, it's just a matter that interests me immensely.

  16. L,

    how utterly tittilating!! I would LOVE to read a piece by you on this. I know you'd go to lengths which just beg to be gone to.

    Cities and paysage are like that: they tend to inspire a strange wonder at tourists when the people actually living there do not always see what the tourists see or vice versa. (This is something I always try to be wary of when guiding people here too; I say away with the plastic couleur locale food and the "traditional" dancing that is only really performed in diaspora-films! Let's do what normal people here do).

    Oh kitsch is nothing bad to fret about! I should like your birds collection I think! It's just that one needs to be fully aware of actually engaging in it: If I'm sitting down and watching John Waters I am fully prepared to laugh with all the farty jokes etc. and have a good time too. If I see a "serious" film with "family values" extoled, then I am kinda feeling I am being sentimentally conned into kitsch and I'm not comfortable with that! (a propos this is my major objection to Spielberg's Schindler's List but it would take a cinematic blog to fully express my opinion, not a perfume one; ideas, ideas, if only I had more time! Anyway...)
    And of course it goes without saying that playing the 24carat intellectual, as you so succinctly put it, would be the ne plus ultra of this phenomenon.

    I will be popping to see your addictions and never mind the greatness of writing. (Hemingway is considered a little kitsch so why should we restrain ourselves?)

  17. I edited out the important detail that mom's angels and my birds are Christmas decorations. In general, I plague my surroundings with books, papers, yarns and fabrics and anything else.
    And, yes, there can be minimalist kitsch, too.

  18. Oh, L,
    Xmas is supremely kitschy. To many, that's the charm of it, nevertheless.
    Books around is indeed a sore point for me too. I have about 10 on my night-stand at all times, about as many on the desk too.

  19. Hi E! -- Late to the party but you have as usual provided much food for thought (is that expression kitschy, btw?

    A question did occur to me while reading: Does the act of aspiration make one middlebrow? I've known many people who really didn't give a damn what anyone thought of their "taste." Some are crude but not all -- some really are part of a social or cultural elite that is confident enough not to know that they are.

    On the other hand, perfumistahood encompasses a certain degree of aspiration by definition, don't you think? As a blogger there have been several instances in which I've liked some mass-market scent everyone here loves to hate and agonized over praising it or, the opposite, felt like the kid in "The Emperor's New Clothes" who is afraid to point out that the Emperor is, in fact, naked. This is followed by a cascade of doubt as in you-just-don't-appreciate-it-yet and so on.

    In that sense the I-like-it-isn't-it-wonderful-to-be-among-those-who-like-it would be considered aspirational thus middlebrow and therefore kitsch-loving. Here's the best example I can think of; what is the true continuum between "are you kidding me?" (first sniff) and "oh, it's divine" (most recent one) as has happened to me with (vintage) Mitsouko?

    This is the process that has intrigued me the most. It seems ubiquitous, until I think about the cave paintings at Lascaux, for example, which had little precedent and yet could be called highbrow.

    At any rate, this post will be good for days of head-scratching thought!

  20. P,

    thanks honey and appreciate your thoughts on this!

    Indeed perfumistahood is by definition aspirational. Perfume, rather, is, don't you think? There is a degree of wanting to better oneself through perfume, whether this takes the physical approach (pleasure, enjoyment to others and from others noticing it, feeling elated by the use etc.)or the intellectual approach (appreciating intricasies, making it a vehicle for instigating thought and knowledge etc.) Therefore there's much truth in what you say.

    One of the things I always liked about you is exactly your unfazed approach to most fragrances and phenomena in this! Maybe because you started blogging when things were ripe on this subject and the companies had largely become jaded and lazy, there was a need to voice your concerns and it resonated with me.

    And this brings me to your middlebrow-aspirational question. Indeed some people don't give a damn and that's perfectly fine and admirable. If one can accept this and without being inluenced come to appreciate something that happens to be great (objectively speaking to the degree that that's doable) then all the more power to them. I like to liken it to people who are sensitive and perceptive to begin with and then come across new cultures: some cultural shock might be the first impression (it's only natural), but then they ease up and come to see the best things of the new culture. Does this make any sense in relation to what you experience?

  21. Yes, absolutely. Perfumista-land is definitely a culture, although not perhaps in the strictest anthropological sense. But since I don't remember what that is, I'll call it a "culture" with impunity. And there are so many good things about this one. Love and an appreciation of beauty are the best ones, IMHO. And then there is the analytical acumen, which always draws me in like a magnet. Nevertheless I am a lifelong iconoclast; just can't help it!

    Thanks for the nice words!

  22. You write the most interesting, witty and informative blog posts. Awesome blog!

  23. P,

    totally behind your way of analytical acumen, you know that. :D (just saw this, btw)


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