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.


Avery Gilbert said...

I’m with you on the intellectual sterility of deconstruction and post-modernism—neither does much to illuminate perfumery. Isn’t the ultimate aesthetic evaluation of perfume how it smells on a woman’s skin? If so, then perfume commentary that aspires to be art criticism—treating Gucci Rush like a Pollock hanging at the Modern—is off on the wrong path.

As for the continuum from realism to abstraction: is it really about how scent notes are obtained and processed? Or about how close they resemble what occurs in nature? We can make realistic melon, guava, and strawberry formulas (representational). Combine them into a meloguaberry accord and you have a realistic fantasy. Add an unrelated metallic note and you’ve got an abstraction.

BTW sensory psychologists are coming around to the idea that we perceive complex smells as whole objects, not as collections of individual notes. Maybe this will alter our ideas about perfumery.

Olfacta said...

Hi AG --

I hope perfume criticism never goes the way of art criticism, as this deconstructionist folderol hasn't done much for art IMHO (duck and cover)...

I had the assembly process in mind with this intrepretation of the representation continuum, as when a piece of visual art is conceived, worked out and ultimately finished, but it could be interpreted as you describe.

And I'm glad to read your last paragraph, because identifying "notes" is something I really am not good at!

Thanks for your thoughts on this.

lady jicky said...

As I am a "visual" person I cannot relate to a abstract painting and the scent it makes me feel like - I am sure many people can but I cannot.

Olfacta said...

Hi LJ -- I guess I could say I appreciate purely abstract art intellectually, but it doesn't get me the way a painting bending toward the abstract -- like a Cezanne or Van Gogh -- does. I like that tension. I'm around new art a lot, though, so am just used to it.

Oddly enough, I would prefer a fragrance pushing toward abstraction also, more than a realistic or a purely abstract one, for that same reason.