Saturday, March 28, 2009
How many molecules can dance on the head of a pin?
For years, I’ve been struggling with the concept of postmodernism. The term is thrown around so carelessly. I’ve heard it used to describe everything from The Cure to graffiti art on skateboard decks. Deconstructionism, reductionism – these were just becoming au courant around the time I graduated from college, so I guess I missed out on the endless deconstruction of the meaning of the meaning of “meaning.”
In the blog Grain de musc’s March 26 entry, a very interesting discussion of the concept of minimalism, and whether it does or does not apply to the perfumery work of Jean-Claude Ellena, has come up. This has made me wonder if perfumery can ever be subjected to “postmodern” analysis.
My first exposure to contemporary art was to minimalism. Fifty aluminum blocks on the floor. A neon tube leaning against a gallery wall. A big, square canvas painted flat black. I knew I didn’t understand it, but was willing to accept it, and so I did. I didn’t know then that minimalism was a concept within the concept of the concept of postmodernism.
There is a continuum of representation that was conceived by one of postmodernism’s stars, Jean Baudrillard. It has four “stops,” left to right, the first of these being your basic reflection of reality, like a snapshot; then your “perversion” of reality -- say, an abstracted landscape painting. Then comes a pretense of reality, something which exists without a model, and finally the “simulacrum,” which is its own reality, refers to nothing but itself and has, in his view, replaced “reality” in modern societies.
In this view, cold-pressed oils, dried plants, natural animal essences or perfumes produced by enfluerage would be on the first stop. On the second might be essences produced in a more aggressive way – with heat, usually – that would resemble the natural material but not be completely authentic, for example, using synthetics to make recognizable floral scents. Third would be assembling molecules to make smells that are pleasant or interesting, but not recognizable as anything in particular.
I’d say Ellena’s work falls somewhere between the second and third categories on that continuum. And I suspect that the more radical modern perfumers would love to take the work all the way out to the simulacra, where the only referent is no referent. Something that smells…like itself. Better than the real thing. Better than any real thing.
When we describe a scent we say “It smells like ….” That might be “roses” or it might be “incense” or “wet concrete”. Is there a scent which has no model? How would we know?
Try to describe your favorite fragrances without using referents. Bet you can’t do it. The best I can do is say that a fragrance reminds me of another fragrance.
It appears that our minds need a referent to describe a smell, even to ourselves. If a perfumer made something truly new, his or her audience would still search for existing referents to perceive it, describe it or even appreciate it.
This is the riddle of this art. I hope it’s enough to shield perfumery as an art from endless philosophical postmodernist nitpicking about the concept of the meaning of the analysis of the meaning of the concept.