Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Ornaments of scent

There seems to be a bit of a (esoteric and semantic but perhaps more interesting in the wider context and not just for perfume enthusiasts) debate on whether fragrance (or at least ''fine fragrance'') is an art. And if it's not an art, what is it, and if it is art, then is it fine art or applied art. The alternative to ''art'' is ''design'', which to me sits indistinguishably near ''applied art''.

This dictionary problem has been occupying me for quite a while now, and inevitably led to attempts to define ''art''. And I think that people who believe that perfume is art simply (or not so simply) have a different working definition of art to those that think of it as ''merely a design''.

Art can be understood as a creation of beauty, something that evokes emotions or brings aesthetic pleasures. Thus defined, a lot of ''design'' has at least an element of art, even if this aesthetic aspect is functional/applied and subordinate to function of the object. Thus defined, perfume is definitely (applied) art.

In fact, one can argue that perfume is more of an art than for example architecture, a lot of ceramics, clothing, furniture or interior design. Sure, it's functional, but its essential function is ornamentation. It's decorative. It doesn't provide expression, commentary or reflection of socio-historical realities, human condition or spiritual experiences. It has no content as such. It doesn't tell a story, and it doesn't transmit ideas, as such. Any possible (and generally fairly thin) content in the art of perfumery is derived from context, not from the object (fragrance) itself. But it can - and sometimes it does - provide new ways of seeing, or rather new ways of smelling.

This is not a mean thing. One could argue that a lot of visual art is just like fragrance. And so is a lot of instrumental and at least some vocal/vocal-instrumental music.

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