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100 Fragrances Every Frag-Head Guy Should Try, part 22: What Is Art?

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I think itís officially time for another especially long-winded post. Basically:

What Is Art?

Philosophically speaking, this has been argued for centuries by much greater minds than mine, so Iím certainly not going to make any great proclamations, but simply offer a few anecdotes and examples.

Iíve spent quite a few years in the gourmet food business, and Iíve found that the idea that food can be art is quite important to the tone of the industry. In a crass way, it helps justify high prices, but in a more honorable way, it allows people in the trade to feel that they are supporting or pursuing a higher calling. However, one of the more agreed-upon definitions of art is that it canít serve any real purpose or have any real use. A chair canít be art, no matter how amazingly well designed it is, because it exists for someone to sit on it. But, if the design of the chair is so extreme that itís useless as an actual chair, then itís art. By this definition, food canít be art, no matter how much care went into its preparation, because food exists for a purpose and if itís not edible, itís no longer food.

I think of this dilemma when people start wondering if perfume is art. Certainly, most of it isnít, as the vast majority of perfumes out there are gross commercialism at its worst, smell-alike garbage designed to smell comfortable and familiar to people who donít care at all about perfume (Of course, the same could be said of food Ė thereís no one out there arguing that McDonalds chicken McNuggets are artÖ). But I think it could be argued that there exists an upper echelon of perfumes that really are art. If the function of perfume is to make corporations rich, these are not the perfumes that do that. If the function of perfume is to attract a potential mate, itís highly doubtful that these would do that, either (though I would argue that the idea that perfume exists to attract people sexually is a load of crap only believed by people naÔve enough to trust those awful Axe commercials).

As such, I personally do believe that perfume can be art (or at least a very high-minded craft), and thatís the basis for todayís picks.

If you think of perfume as art, then for most of the last hundred years, itís been mostly paintings of fields of flowers, bathed in an impressionist haze of powder and aldehydes. They havenít been literal, but have largely been hazy expressions of something real, natural, and pastoral.

But, art has to move forward. Impressionism eventually led to Picasso, who led to modern art and Andy Warhol. Thus, I give you the pop art of perfume:

66. Dirt by Demeter Fragrance Library

No discussion of the paradigm shift in perfumery can be complete without Dirt. The entire Demeter Fragrance Library is a collection of literal smells, some unpleasant, but most surprisingly wearable. Of them, Dirt is king for many reasons. First, it came out right as CK One and its ilk were selling clean laundry smell to the masses, and it smelled like dirt. Second, even though scents were changing in the 90ís, they still had an impressionist haze to them Ė instead of hazy fields of flowers, they were hazy fields of flowers and hyper-clean laundry. In the midst of all this, Dirt came along. Seriously, a perfume that literally smelled like dirt. It was like Andy Warhol painting a soup can. And itís brilliant for that.

Oh, and it also smells surprisingly good and is one of the most fun perfumes out there, so try it! If anything, it only lasts about an hour, so just give it a fun spray to try it out Ė itíll fade before anyone can smell you.

67. Odeur 71 by Comme Des GarÁons

If Dirt was a shock to the system in the form of unbridled realism and celebration of decidedly un-perfume subject matter, then Comme Des GarÁons took it to the next level by actively messing with the perceptions of how perfume should smell and what it meant to be a perfume.

Their ultimate example of this is Odeur 71. With notes including ďdust on a hot light bulbĒ, ďthe salty taste of a batteryĒ, hot metal, and electricity, it seems to flatly reject not only traditional perfumery, but also traditional notes and marketing. As such, 71 is the perfume equivalent of the experimental modern artists of the 1940ís and 50ís, displaying blank canvases and urinals on gallery walls in a complete revolution and re-definition of what counted as art.

But hereís the thing Ė it smells good. Imagine a traditional lemony woody chypre with a pinch of clove and some incense in the base and a heavy mix of pine and celery reminiscent of Yatagan, but with a weird salt overdose and a dollop of rubbery waxy plastic ozone smell on top. Thatís essentially what it smells like, but the way these smells interact over the life of the perfume really does recreate the crazy note list.

Any comments? Have I forgotten anything important? Do you think perfume is art, craft, or neither? I'm sure many of us have thoughts on this subject...


  1. jujy54's Avatar
    Perfume is experience. To me, it is in the company of wine and music, wherein we long to share the experience in words, and in all 3 cases we are translating the non-verbal to verbal. Art is a sharing, too. The artist wants us to see what she saw, hear what he's heard. Art abstracts nature. So, perfume and music, and maybe wine, are art, too.
  2. Made in California's Avatar
    Where's Paper Passion by Steidl! haha


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