The Aesthetics of a Sense that should make more Sense


Information, tons of information, information overload. We’ve all seen that, we’ve all heard that. The information we are overloaded by is mostly of audio-visual origin. But what about the messages recorded through touch, smell and taste? Today’s society considers touch, smell and taste more as subjective and private senses, opposed to the objective and public senses of vision and sound.


The Art of Touching, Smelling and Tasting

There are some difficulties in formulating aesthetics of touch, smell and taste. Today’s culture lacks of tactile art, so to say ‘touch museums’. There’s one in Ancona, Italy, but it is a rare exception. One of the reasons why touch or smell are seemingly unrecognized by art might be because their supremacy makes them impossible to escape – it’s the instant message, instant meaning. We can shut our eyes and cover our ears, but we can’t avoid touch and smell, they’re inescapable. Touch is too important information carrier to be distilled or elaborated. Other senses are rather obscure, making it possible to re-interpret their messages in many different ways and create artistic alterations. We long for what we see, we feel what we hear and smell, and what we touch we are. Albert Einstein once said: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Before the culture of language was created we somehow understood each other naturally. Simply by smelling and touching, didn’t we? Communicating only the relevant information needed for life and survival.


A Piece of Marketing

Sensory marketing guru, Simon Harrop provides us with the right communication pattern to consider and apply by giving a step-by-step example of a romantic encounter:

SIGHT: you see her, you’re triggered and she got your attention;

SOUND: you call her: “How you doin’?” and you ask her out. You go out, surrounded by jazz music at the bar and you ask her for a dance;

TOUCH: the beginning is just about holding hands, but as rhythms slow down you’re able to pull her closer and;

SMELL: her perfume, her hair, the information you receive gets more intimate. You can smell that she had a cigarette before meeting you, because there’s a small scent-hint in her hair, and that she tried to hide it with a playful scent of tuberose. And then the last, the most private;

TASTE: you kiss. And the rest is history (in the making).


It’s in the Air and in his Shoes: Smelling and Trend Detecting

Intimacy is part of citizenship, as it is a manifest in many contemporary artworks, especially in Hence, taste and smell imply another conception of social links, one that deconstructs the dualistic frontier between public and private. Besides the fact, that Taste and Smell are married, where the first cannot live without the second, saying that much of the taste of food depends on its smell.

Here, have you ever thought about the word “sagacious”?

To be sagacious means to be “of keen and farsighted penetration of judgment, indicating acute discernment”. Etymologically sagacity means “to have a good nose”, like a dog. Hence the general acceptation of sagacity would be “a gift for nosing, finding things out”.

Sagacity is the art of smelling.

To have “a good nose” for something helps to perceive the radically new, but also to guess the unknown, to scent out unprecedented outcomes. The faculty of foresight is one of the meanings of sagacity. And even today, with all the trends being mixed and the lines blurred, we need a good nose to detect the origin and possible impact on the future. To detect the “why” by stepping into another’s shoes. Another reference towards tactility is the saying “to know how it feels like you have to be in his shoes.” Immanuel Kant stated that the “enlargement of the mind” is accomplished by putting ourselves in the place of any other man. Meaning that critical thinking, considered still a solitary deal, does not cut itself off from “all others”. Of course, the process initially still takes place in isolation, but by the force of imagination it makes others present and thus moves in a space that is potentially public, open to all sides, it adopts the position of Kant’s world citizen. Hannah Arendt noted that to think with an enlarged mentality means to train one’s imagination to go visiting. To travel in the mind, and in real life, for people watching and examining, and eventually why not for possible trend-spotting.


Go to Paris, Feel the Joy

In Ancient Egypt, Hathor was the Goddess of Joy and Perfumes. Hatshepsut’s tremendous expedition to the Land of Punt in order to bring back perfumes to Egypt showed the crucial role of perfumes in this civilization, which was “perfume-dependant” not only for aesthetic virtues but for sacred purposes, and political equilibriums as well. Hathor was the Mistress of the Laboratory of Edfou in which the metamorphic power of perfumes was effective in their ability of giving life both to the dead and to the statues of gods.
 Imagine a scene: “Now this,” she says, as she lights a small torch and blasts the incense so that it begins to produce a commanding trail of smoke, “This is perfume.” And the room was filled with joy.

The most costly perfume in the world today would be “Joy” by Jean Patou, and that being said not from a market price point of view, but from an ingredients point of view. The most precious jasmines and roses are gathered here to celebrate the scent of duality, a dance in between these two royal flowers. It is an artwork worth smelling and re-smelling.

Speaking of the Joy of Art in the Everyday

It has often been argued that touch, smell and taste cannot produce art because they deal with ephemeral stimuli and consume their objects. Still, even if one could prove the existence of art forms based on the haptic sense, olfaction and taste, it is claimed to be difficult. It is almost impossible to elaborate a discourse on them in the form of a critique and an aesthetic theory because of the poor and vague terminology used to describe the experiences and qualities. We lack of verbs depends on borrowings. Also, the ethnology-linguistic research on the language of the senses is only in its infancy. It is sporadic, yet promising.

The aesthetics of the senses requires a meta-aesthetics, a reflection on its own language. Scents are usually considered to be kind of dangerous and used for sensual purposes. Psychological research has proven that artificial fragrances can only seldom be identified without any support of visual or verbal stimuli.

Nonetheless, one should be cautious against any superficial optimism in the attempt to rehabilitate the secondary senses in aesthetics. The question of the existence of haptic, olfactive and gustatory representations has still not found an answer in the scientific community, and it might even be too early to answer that without adequate support from epistemology and cognitive science. As an example, let’s look at violets. Violets contain ionone, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on. From the history we know that the violet besotted so the ancient Athenians that they chose it as their city’s official flower and symbol. Victorian women liked to sweeten their breath with cachous violet drops, especially if they’d been drinking. And no written scientific explanations are to be found about the violets so far.

Last but not least, the evidence that our age has developed exclusively around visual and acoustic media enhances the repression and impoverishment of the experience of smell, taste, and the haptic sense – these senses are aroused only indirectly by media. That’s why many artists are moving towards the Taste and Smell. Not only artists but the aesthetics of everyday life suggest a hunger for secondary senses, which may be attributed to the need for intimacy, affection and having a holistic experience of the body. Cooking has widely been transformed from drugery into a fashionable hobby for cuisiniers de dimanche. Aromatherapy and body workshops are flourishing on the threshold between science, esoteric beliefs and aesthetic hedonism. Creative industries experiment with new materials that strongly address touch (in the IT, automobile industry, furniture design etc.). The marketing advantage of haptic and olfactory design of household goods has been used successfully for years. As a result, the meaning of design has been extended to other senses, and expressions such as “sound design” have become en vogue. Yet the mention of “smell design” is rather scarce, even after Citroën C4 won a prize a few years ago for its parfumeur d’ambiance, and again, “food design” still generally refers to the visual display of the edible. Finally, the relaxation industry (spas, wellness-centres etc) is also based on the practices that engage all senses. In the realm of olfaction, one of the main difficulties in justifying an olfactory aesthetics consists mainly in the lack of specific education and sensibility.


To end, to proceed and to light the discussion I’d like to say here:
Don’t fail to recognize and sense.


Written by Julia Ahtijainen
Published in LE MILE magazine