Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Perfume Appreciation & the Quest for Objective Beauty

It is all too often that I come across pronouncements having to do with differing perceptions on fragrances that end with "Everyone is different and perfume is so subjective" or "One woman's poison is another woman's meat" (no reference to any specific Dior fragrance infered!). I fully realise that it is a polite way to agree to disagree. Nevertheless it accounts for a severe skewing of perception of art forms and muddling of "beauty"(i.e. harmony) vs. "attractiveness" (i.e. personal associations and quirks). The two are not interchangeable, nor mutually exclusive or inclusive.

If we are to consider perfumery as an art form (a concept that was pioneered by Edmond Roudnitska and increasingly popular in our days of niche brands plethora) such pronouncements present something of an oxymoron. Something can be beautiful and nevertheless not attract you personally, just as much as something can be ~by virtue of the common denominator~ termed ugly and yet you find yourself madly enamored with it! This is because beauty and attraction are two completely different qualities and to muddle between the two amounts to a confusion of aesthetic principles. So without escalating this into a manifesto, let's disentangle the matter as pertains to perfumery and its aesthetics.

If perfumery is to be held as an art form, then it should capitulate to the rules of other art forms: It should be judged on aesthetic grounds and present measurable qualitative and quantitative criteria. Aesthetics is generally viewed as the "critical reflection on art, culture and nature." and as such it is subordinate to axiology (a branch of philosophy). The very word has an interesting etymology that brings us closer to its true core: αξία in Greek means value, as in monetary value, but more importantly in this case as moral value, i.e. as an ideal to be reached. Therefore aesthetics and art philosophy in general aim at establishing and questioning the moral values shaping any specific art form (NB. By "moral" I do not refer to Judeo-Christian nuances of the term).

The experience of "beauty" often involves interpreting an entity (a human being, a painting, a perfume...) as being in balance with nature or presenting a view of harmony; in essence this is the classical ideal, a concept that considers the context as important, thus rendering a replica of Capella Sixtina's dome in the lounge of a Las Vegas casino ultimately kitch, same as wearing an extrait de parfum by Chanel in order to denote one's superior taste or social status [But more on that on our article on kitch here].
This harmonious coexistence might in turn produce feelings of attraction and emotional well-being. Because this is a subjective experience, the pronouncement that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is often referenced. Defenders of this view consider beauty to engender a salient experience, reflecting on the meaning of their own existence, therefore imbuing beauty with personal resonance. However as with everything a little more in depth exploring is warranted.

The classical Greek adjective for "beautiful" is καλός (ka-LOS), as in καλός καγαθός in Homer (It denotes excellence in character, social status and physical attributes, all at once). The Koine Greek word for beautiful in contrast was ὡραῖος (hō-RE-os) which derives from ὥρα (hōra), meaning "hour." Therefore being of "one's hour", in context with time and place was considered the mark of true beauty. Our society that produces fruit outside their normal time-frame in greenhouses and puts women under the knife for them to appear younger (or encourages teenagers to abandon their fresh looks in favour of an oversexualised, mature image) is clearly out of synch with this concept. Consider how when judging a perfume we are ascertaining its place within its historical context, like we did with Chanel No.46 or Patou's Ma Collection fragrances, but also how it should present a quality of timelessness, like for instance the classical vetiver colognes that shaped the genre. Certainly there are fragrances 'of their time' and 'for all time' and sometimes the two wonderfully interlap (Eau Sauvage, Coty Chypre, Guerlain Shalimar to name but a few).

But agreeing on specific terms doesn't always come naturally. Immanuel Kant brings the example of a man: "If he says that Canary wine is agreeable he is quite content if someone else corrects his terms and reminds him to say instead: It is agreeable to me," because "Everyone has his own (sense of) taste" (1790). The case of "beauty" differs from mere "agreeableness" nevertheless because, "If he proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others; he then judges not just for himself but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things."
This truth may appear almost fascist to today's political correct sensibilities of tolerance and acceptance of difference, but like with accessing Leni Rifensthal's Triumph of the Will, there might be moral reasons to feel horror because of it, but aesthetic reasons to feel awe all the same. The axiom that emerged in the 19th century romanticism milieu became "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" evoking a perception of ugliness as potentially mistaken or short-sighted. Popular fairy tales taught from the cradle onwards, such as The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen, helped cement this idea.

Yet the saying is a perverted twist on the most unexpected source: Plato! Plato argued powerfully in favour of the objectivity of certain values, such as good, beauty and truth, mapping them outside an individual's sphere of perception or belief. Talk about irony! In his philosophical system ~as displayed most famously in the Allegory of the Cave~ there are two worlds, the physical one in which we live and another, abstract world of unchanging truth; the physical world seen as a mere reflection of the more perfect abstract world (A modern twist of which is found in The Matrix of all things). In Symposium, the Greek idealist philosopher advises: "Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may." A mental judgement of beauty does not exclude that there is a specific idea of beauty, in fact αξία, a moral value! (On that note Drew A. Hyland wrote an interesting book named Plato and the Question of Beauty)

The ambiguity of the Sophists movement in 5th century BC Athens ("everything is relevant, everything is subjective") culminated (via the Neoplatonics) into the romantic notion of subjective beauty, which coincided with the "widening" of the world into empires that spun two hemispheres: The shift from Victorian to Edwardian ideals as pertains to beauty and art are a mere example. Judgments of aesthetic value were also linked to judgments of economic or political value, focusing on what a thing symbolises and thus judging the thing through its symbolic value. The emergence of luxury perfume houses and purveyors of fine cosmetics (Guerlain, Houbigant, L.T. Piver, Lancome) bore a role of ascertaining a social position that was marked by acknowledging beauty and reaping its benefits.

Aesthetic judgment usually goes beyond sensory discrimination. David Hume proclaims delicasy of taste as "the ability to detect all the ingredients in a composition" (discerning all notes in a perfume?), but supplements it with the sensitivity "to pains as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind", indavertedly jump-starting the whole modernist theory of art that is conceived to shock or repel (compare this with the desire of perfumephiliacs to explore the arcane and the initially "weird"). Sensory discrimination is therefore linked to a capacity for "pleasure" and when pleasure arises from sensation then we have "enjoyment" (as per Kant) But this sensation as explained in The Critique of Judgment correlates the "beautiful" with engaging reflective contemplation, rendering any pronouncement on beauty a sensory, emotional and intellectual endeavour all at once.

Therefore in order to ascertain the beauty of a perfume, one should employ beyong the gut feeling of like/dislike some other criteria:

  • How well does the fragrance converse what it has to say? (And does it have something to say in the first place?) 
  • How well does it intergate into its genre and into its time-frame? 
  • How well does it balance the facets and create its message? 
  • How well does it stay on skin? 
  • Is the perfumer or art director in possession of a distinct style uniquely his/her own? (For instance Jean Claude Ellena, Isabelle Doyenne, Serge Lutens, Michel Roudnitska and some others clearly are) 

One can absolutely dislike something that they respect as a work of art and vice versa.  Not everyone likes the Taxi Driver, but it's a great movie for several reasons. Many people love the Beach Boys but they're not on an artistic par with the Beatles, say, again for several reasons.
There needs to be an end to the political correctness of "everyone smells differently/ perhaps it's my chemistry" in order for the perfume community to accept fragrance not merely as a sent bon (nothing wrong with that, per se) but as an art form.
Perhaps the wittiest epilogue is decidely low-brow but, ah, so apt: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye."

So, on to you: what do you think?

Light bulbs with flame via cache.wists.com. Painting of fat nude by Jenny Saville via blog.robbiecooper.org. Parisian illustration from 1922 via lovesponge03/photobucket.

Inspired by 1000frsgrances


  1. Fiordiligi16:37

    What a terrific piece, dearest E! How lovely to read such elegant and informed writing. I do wish I could read Greek too.

    I completely agree that we are so afraid of not being PC that we make up excuses, but the "chemistry" thing just doesn't fly with me at all and never has. And being British, I am not quite so hung up about being PC as some, although politeness (not at all the same thing) is a given!

  2. Wow! This was really informative in more ways than I initially thought. I'm realtively new to this whole brave perfume world but what I've come to realize is I can appreciate some perfumes even though I can't imagine wearing them and then there are some I wish lasted longer than an hour on me, and some that might not be termed beautiful by my friends and family or even perfumistas, they are forgettable everyday creations but sometimes they speak to me and I cannot imagine not wearing them.

  3. Strange, E--I left a long comment, and got an error message when I tried to post it.

    I won't try to re-create it, except to say, Great post! It's an eternal question. I think you can critique beauty from either a Platonic or romantic perspective, but you can't converse across the philosophical chasm between them.

  4. D,

    thanks honey! Greek is rather difficult to learn (I swear we're having trouble with children learning ancient Greek as well, so it's not like I am exagerrating), but quite rewarding.

    There is a difference between politeness and political correctness to be sure, you're absolutely right. There is no need to hurt anyone's feelings and like so many of us I too find myself often lured by low-brow.

    Sometimes I wonder whether we pause to think about how exactly we phrase our dislike, especially: Is it something that is built on association ("pewwww, it smells like old lady") or on comparison/categorisation ("it smells old"> I would infer from that that it smells "dated", which is not the same thing as the former example).
    Anyway, that merits its own post I guess.

  5. I,

    there is something to be said about embracing the non-beautiful too, as well as perfume being seen sometimes as olfactory escapism (which doesn't necessarily correlate with art and that's perfectly all right, if one acknoledges it, or in some cases it could bear some relation).
    Do you have any specific examples?

  6. M,

    so sorry about that...:-(
    I wonder why Blogger is acting up sometimes. Could it be that there was a link included? Sometimes the texting/code for those wraps up the comment weirdly and it gets rejected. (I don't know...)

    Indeed the subject is endless, it's so difficult to reconcile opposing views on this, because so often it touches on general principle (we're supposed to be thoroughly accepting) and I find myself hindered from profession an opinion that might touch on the hurtful. After all, if someone created something, isn't there some universal truth in it? Even if it belongs in the Museum of Bad Art? Yet, you see, with an issue such as perfume which is poised between intellectual property and commercial product, the whole matter gets perplexing, isn't it in your opinion?

  7. I'm no one to judge others.

    And I love that Saville painting.

    Perplexing as it may be, I believe in the rights of ALL-
    Not simply those who fancy that they have exquisite taste.

    Bring it on.

    I love the intellectual conundrum and challenge-
    It keeps us honest.
    I crave honest....

  8. It is indeed perpelexing, E--as is Blogger, which is acting up over on my site as well. I hadn't thought much about how the commercial aspect complicates things, but as you point out, "value" is multi-faceted, and the economic value certainly has implications for aesthetic value, at least among some consumers.

    I agree that any critique has to take into account the earnest effort and intent of the creator (assuming one can be identified--not always true with the products of huge corporations.) Still, I don't think there's anything wrong with declaring an effort a failure, as long as that judgment is made within the context of the creator's ambition. It's unfair and pointless to denounce the fruity florals of the 90s for not being the floral chypres of the 40s, just because the latter are more to our own taste. But it's equally silly to say that you can't make objective judgments about the relative merits of one fruity floral over another, just because the "bad" one has its fans. FWIW, I love a number of perfumes I know are objectively bad, and there are perfumes I recognize as beautiful, but that you couldn't pay me to wear.

  9. Hmm, off the top of my head, lately what I seem to like and wear that would enter the beautiful would be Feminite du Bois, Bulgari Black and Chinatown (if we assume LT knows what is great and beautiful) and I really enjoyed Very Irresistible by Givenchy and Brazilian Beat by Avon.

  10. stella p10:32

    Thank you! This piece initiate a lot of thinking! Well, just a few word now. I think perfumes shall not just please, they must give meaning. Remember reading Killian Hennesy in an interview saying that the challenge for a perfumer is to create a scent that smells and thinks. A great perfume is never just a beautiful harmony.
    (I'm a philosopher, and I belong to the ones thinking that art (and some perfumes can be regarded as work of art, I think!) not only have aesthetic value, but also cognitive. Perfumes can be regarded as better or worse ways of presenting a matter as a focus for emotional attitudes and thought. There is objectivity involved!)

  11. A thought provoking and well-written piece once again, Ms E. I also wish I knew Greek. You are at an advantage amongst Classical aficionados :) .

    Off the top of my head - there are some scents very much of 'their time' but beautiful. But personal associations come into play. For example the heavy fragrances of the 80s remind me of my childhood and associations regardless of beauty. My Maths teacher who wore White Linen. Number 5 (my mum). Or the ubiquitous 'Giorgio Beverly Hills' which filled the shopping centres in my working-class hometown.

    Out of the scents of the time - the only one to fall into the 'golden rule' would be, for me, the YSL scents. Particularly Paris and Opium. As you said - nose of the beholder.

  12. Love the choice of the painting by Jenny Saville!
    Are fat people beautiful or are they not -- one could go on and on about what is beautiful and what is not. Nose or eyes - we all judge and what I think is beautiful others may not. That is what makes life so interesting!

    I find that painting beautiful by the way.
    I shall be posting a Christmas card to you with my address on it soon.
    Oh - off to a great Greek restaurant with friends tomorrow.
    Mmmm - what perfume to wear?????

  13. Perfume is an art form but perhaps because there isn't a history of it being treated as such people don't realise. I am passionate about the fact that a Guerlain scent is as much a master piece as a painting. So you can buy it easily- you can buy a reproduction of sunflowers very easily but it doesn't mean it's any less relevant or important to people.

    I agree about the picture you've used and the idea of beauty. Before I had tried more scents I don't think I would have understood a scent like Bvlgari black at all but now I think it's incredible- I might not wear it for an interview but there is no denying it's a great piece of work.

    Great writing as ever E- I'm not being complimentary without meaning- I always love reading perfume shrine

  14. JAntoinette10:44

    After reading this (with great enjoyment), I realized I have a copy of The Sense of Beauty by George Santayana in my "To Read" stack next to my bed. It inevitably is pushed to bottom in favor of something more easily digestible; I will rectify this weekend.

    I was recently asked to help find a tuberose scent for a friend. After sending a copious amount of samples all were declared as smelling like ant poison. I had sent some heartbreakingly beautiful versions, symphonies and sonatas, and it killed me to hear all of them compared to insect killer. I am now trying to find a non-confrontational way of asking if she knows what tuberoses are and what they smell like. I have a suspicion that it is the idea of tuberose that is tempting her, and not the execution. Art and beauty in the imagination instead of in reality, I suppose.

  15. I,

    I love that Saville painting as well: it does give new insight into what we "consider" beautiful, so I thought it a propos.

    Arbitrers of taste is a notion that I have little appreciation of myself: However there is a difference between taste (whether good or bad) and harmony. The latter can't be disputed.
    As you say the intellectual discourse that ensues from these subjects is something that puts our thought-processes into overdrive, and all for the best.

  16. M,

    salient points as always.
    I feel that the products "created" by thought-groups and brainstorming sessions over oval desks lack an essential (ha!) quality that most great works of art possess: a unique vision, a person's passion! When something is thus "shared", manipulated and dissected into minutiae some of its soul escapes to never revert...Or so I think.

    As you point out the effort of a creator can be praised even if the result is "faulty" by certain criteria. One has to make mistakes to pave new ways, Rome wasn't built in a day etc. etc. and I guess it might inspire others into progressing the idea. Which is good! What I don't like is that some "successful" (by which criteria?) ideas are rejingled endlessly: It reminds me of "elevator Mozart", aka "let's take a good idea and milk it for all it's worth".
    Personally I find en masse critiquing and condemning any genre (be it fruity florals or whatever) is intrisicly wrong somehow: It's like saying "all Finnish are bad-looking" or such (totally random pick in order to illustarte a point, nothing wrong with Finns!!)
    I mean, surely there are exceptions to every axiom and one might find themselves into the uncomfortable position of having to admit liking a specimen at some point. And then trying to ascertain the attributes that prompted that admission and getting to the top of this discussion: is it "like" or is it "appreciation of beauty"? :-)
    Never-ending... :/

  17. I,

    like I said to Chayaruchama above, I don't really believe in arbitrers of taste (even though I appreciate the thoughts of LT very much).
    Excellent illustation of your point though, now I see it clearer: I suppose there is a value of innovation, quirkiness and connoisseurship regarding the first group, while there is the value of gut-feeling appeal/association in the second one (Haven't tried the Avon fragrance though, but I think I get what you mean)

  18. S,

    what a lovely quote, thanks for bringing it here! (He has more than a pretty face I see)

    Certainly there is cognitive value in perfume appreciation: I believe it trascends beauty sometimes, in producing discordance and sharp clashes, which however do appeal to us.
    And I have to say your saying: "Perfumes can be regarded as better or worse ways of presenting a matter as a focus for emotional attitudes and thought; there is objectivity involved" resonantes with me very much!!

  19. TUOS,

    thanks for chimming in!
    Ah...Greek is a hard language to learn for foreigners alas: but extremely rewarding in that its syntax and grammatical patterns organise the thought into a completely different way than the Anglo-Saxon linguistic patterns. I am a firm believer that the classical studies do provide a completely unique way of thinking, forgotten by the modern world, and that learning a foreign language provides the best glimpse into knowing another culture (This does merit elaboration at some point, I have thought long and hard about this, but let's not bore you all for now)

    Excellent examples of what I was talking about, thank you!! I would assume that Giorgio taken without its cultural and personal associations would produce very different responses in -say- 50 years' time. I bet it won't be so vilified then (assuming it remains as it was, which is not in the cards for every single perfume around, worse luck...). And yes, I'd think that Paris and Opium do bear the insignia of a classic: Why is this? They're well-made, no doubt about it. But also there is the strong communication of the ethos of an era, which manages to retain segments of an immortal value: I think that's behind No.5's success (among the cognoscenti, not the masses who are swayed by its supersmart marketing) as well!
    Don't you agree?

  20. M,

    the painting is beautiful IMO because it uses perspective and brishwork into a harmonious effect, but also because it provides cognitive stimulus, challenging our perception of the subject. There is no doubt the image is beautiful, but is the subject as well? (Isn't it a clever painting one that manages that!)
    So re: whether fat people are beautiful or not. It depends on the person, IMO. I have seen people who radiate light and joie de vivre from their overweight frame and so they appear harmonious, as if you couldn't imagine them any other way. I have also seen frumpy people that carry their weight like a malignant load on humpered shoulders.
    Certainly the perception of beauty differs (culturally, from person to person, from era to era...) and it does make life very interesting! I think it's that which we attribute as "attractiveness" most of the time.

    Hope you had fun at the Greek restaurant, you're fortunate that there is indeed a plethora of choices there (and I bet some will be very good ones). I always associate Greek dining with jasmine vines, mastic/lentisque, aniseed, chypre smells.... ;-)

  21. K,

    you bring an excellent point to the discussion!
    The commerciability of an art form doesn't diminish its value in people's lives: Great masters painted for palaces and churches (presumambly those were places that a lot of eyes would see them) and their art was not intended for the museum or the connoisseurs! I also applaud the classic ideal of beautifying the city so that the citizens will become better for it! (There's a way to raise a people's beauty and taste criterion)

    So glad you're appraising a good perfume regardless of its wearability factor: I think we need to have an arsenal of great pieces of work just for our own enjoyment, too!

    And thanks so much for your copious complimenting, I'm truly touched!!

  22. JA,

    literature of the 19th century does have that effect, I'm afraid. But it's worth it (if only for his antithesis with Kant's theory)! Obviously it needs blocking some time.

    So sorry about your experience with your friend...
    You know, I think you're definitely on to something!! There is a received notion of the "beauty" of tuberose, and then there is the reality of the thing: If one isn't familiar with the real thing, then how can one make any judgement that isn't swayed by associations? And believe me, your friend isn't completely delusional, as I had written before, scents talk to each other and functional perfumery has often breached into the territory of fine fragrance to draw popular smells and bare them to their bones in order to use them. So the ant insecticide does reference Poison by Dior (Baygon does one that does to dire effect) which is indeed built on...tuberose!! Isn't it fascinating how the human mind works? :-)


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