WHEN CRITICISING SCENTS

ON PERFUMERY COMMUNITY AND CRITICISM

 

“In the case of sociology however, we are always walking on hot coals, and the things we discuss are alive, they’re not dead and buried.” 

― Pierre Bourdieu

 

Different professions foster different attitudes and lifestyles. Some professions for example require smelling, weighting and thinking. And there’s always a good amount of pure and cute naivety of a beginner. The search for truth and the moment of decision-making to take up the run. Marathon or sprint – that depending on a vision and personality.

And if you choose running the marathon, you still have to practice sprints and breathing in between. Breathe in and breathe out, train, reflect, create and summarize. One of those sprints for me took place in Milan, at Esxence tradeshow dedicated to the art of perfumery. Discussions heard and products experienced triggered in me both – a culture enthusiast and just a frank person who enjoys arguments that evoke the positive and developing sense of criticism.

 

But before we proceed, one has to answer – why the sense of smell and why perfumes? The reasons are mostly multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

First and foremost perfumes are about intelligence and beauty, and beauty differs from one cultural room to another, from one person to another. Beauty is ungraspable, it is based on the experiences and knowledge. And a perfume is definitely one beautiful work of art. Secondly, the all-known and over-used fact that smell is connected with our memory and plays upon the feeling of nostalgia. Yes, we all know that pretty well from our personal experiences. Thirdly, there’s something mysterious about it all, and one is just simply curious by nature. Smell cannot be easily transmitted as images or melodies, it is a less reliable sensation than vision or sound. So, here rises a question about the communication and possible interpretations. And last but not least, from a storyteller point of view, perfumes or lets say scents in general are chemical stories, novellas, and poems that carry meanings. They are messages to be perceived and kept close.

So, these were the main reasons why the sense of smell and why perfumes.

 

PERFUMERY CULTURE IS…

…’farouche’ as they say in French, meaning both ‘shy’ and ‘fierce’ at the same time. I started from the shy side learning it all from the basics, reading and measuring scented poems line by line in the laboratory in Paris. One discovered that there are numerous opinions and opinion holders within the industry. Many of them barely being near the scale or touching a pipette, but still having annoying opinions for example about oriental scents, not knowing how really annoying it is to add resinoids into the perfume formula.

(background sound: ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ by Snoop Dogg)

Prophet Muhammad was said to be a perfume lover, one of his quotes is that perfume is the intangible quality of god. The unmeasurable and otherworldly. One can also view a perfume as a product of culture full of meanings. But how to perceive it? How to evaluate the quality? How to interpret it? And how to talk about it? Where to position this mysterious piece of art?

To hear more opinions, I decided to attend Esxence lectures in Milan, to hear the opinions towards the approach on perfumery criticism, and of course – smell them all!

 

THE STABLE MARKETING POINT OF VIEW

It is easy to grasp and understand fragrance from a marketing point of view. Simply by viewing it as a product. We can evaluate the packaging, the amount of costly raw materials used, the effort that was put to produce “the story” behind the creation, that is “connected with the soul” or was “inspired by the travels to exotic places”… We’re all familiar with them, and this all is simply great, inspiring and somehow educating. Here we sense perfume from a consumer point of view: where is it distributed, how is it communicated within the media, who is the main target group etc. Clear enough, fair enough. There’s a logical system within this approach, there are numbers and stats that matter the most.

Coming from semiotic woods, and having background in qualitative research, I must stay true to my roots and agree with Vin Scully, who said that statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination. Let’s illuminate.

 

THE LIGHT ART POINT OF VIEW

But if many of us, including me, state that perfumery is art, then what is art and how to evaluate it? How to criticize a fragrance from the art point of view? At Exsence during the lecture on perfumery criticism it wasn’t yet clear which approach to take.

There were comparisons and thoughts about approaching it from the movie industry and awards point of view. Also, from a literary and from an author point of views. What remained dominating within this discussion was the importance of exchanging information, impressions and creating the language of perfumery.

Yes, of course we can “culturize” scents and fragrances in that way, make them more domestic and common. But it’s still not enough if to develop a system for perfumery criticism and judgement. In my frank opinion, the logic and the concept of criticism went missing during this panel discussion.

frankly_perf_1

As heard at the forum, analyzing perfumes through their creators is a very beautiful idea, and poetically speaking definitely a fruitful ground where to break it down. But it would be definitely too subject-focused approach, and it wouldn’t give us a proper playground.

I agree that we could borrow frameworks from the movie industry. There are plenty of different schools that supply us with the tools to analyze a moving image and meanings behind it. The language of the movie and cultural codes in it. There’s a great contribution by Italian and French movie theorists, Russian formalists, and Umberto Eco’s developments based on Metz and Pasolini’s works. Movie industry has definitely a very wide variety of tools for criticism, evaluation and analysis. There are lots of different approaches and ways to grasp movie as an art piece and as a product of a culture.

 

Drawing upon this, I would suggest that if talking about fragrance criticism we should develop same systematic approach, be it based on structuralists’ views or language logicians. We do already have a great basis of thoughts and conclusions by the great ones such as Edmond Roudnitska, who applied Kantian aesthetic judgment within his writings and creations. And if to establish a language of perfumery and develop the proper criticism, one should have a system, a system of scented logic. For instance, we could borrow frameworks from logicians or semioticians, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein or Roland Barthes and apply them to perfumery analysis.

 

ON THE CONTRIBUTION OF ONLINE OPINION LEADERS

Freedom is great. And it’s definitely great that nowadays everyone has freedom to express themselves in this digital world. It’s great that there are platforms where to gather and discuss, where to connect with like-minded people, where to share your knowledge and thoughts, where to exchange and learn… My question here would be is this great greatness always right? Should one take all this for a pure truth and right expertise? As heard from the creators’ side, some parts of this greatness aren’t always exactly true, some parts of it aren’t always right, some parts of it are just a heavy mass of personal opinions and reflections.

What went missing during the panel discussion and the glorification of the rise of online community, was the other side of the coin. And there’s always the other side. Besides the positive values and awareness that these opinion leaders and platforms create, there’s also the harmful side. The level and the expertise of these opinions might be sometimes questionable.

Start-ups are great, but they’re really great when people behind them have a certain level of education and experience. One cannot become an expert out of the blue just by buying a new camera and deciding to blog about something curious such as perfumery. Pardon my French, I don’t want to say that it’s easy to smell and track, not at all. But it’s definitely way too easy to create opinions and likes. Which are subjective and definitely not the main elements to consider if we want to speak about the real criticism.

 

 

Sometimes I speak too much. Sometimes I don’t speak at all. But I’m certainly curious to explore, learn and understand. I do value highly exchanging and I do think that having an opinion is essential. And if talking perfumery criticism, it should be fair and professional, acknowledged and conscious about cultural backgrounds, different interpretations and final meaning depending on the environment.

Criticism is cold and calculated. Criticism is systematic and balanced. If to start building up the language of perfumery and the criticism of it’s grammar and vocabulary, one has to consider not only the final product and the affection and impressions of the market. One has to consider all the elements, codes and parts, all the lines: raw materials used, their quality, the complexity or simplicity of the formula, length or shortness, the outcome, the effect, perceptions and meanings arised. It should have some personal reflections, mainly based on the knowledge of classics to compare and detect possible copies.

A perfume is more than a story and the nose behind it. Perfumery is way more complex entity to analyse and criticize. American drama critic George Jean Nathan has said that criticism is the windows and chandeliers of art: it illuminates the enveloping darkness in which art might otherwise rest only vaguely discernible, and perhaps altogether unseen. So critique is essential, it’s needed for an art piece to survive, to come alive.

After visiting Exsence and talking with the creators and noses, one thing is clear – there is passion, there are years of learning and working, there are pieces of art and stories. Very strong ones and very well curated. Scent making is definitely an art but what about criticism?

 

Maybe this write-up is too ‘farouche’, meaning the fierce side of this word and reflecting the frankly ambitious view of a newcomer. Maybe one will eat her words in a couple of years… Maybe yes, maybe not, but one is for sure – there’s always a way to make it better, to become better and to evolve in every sense of this verb.

 

Written by Julia Ahtijainen