Christopher Brosius and why we don't perceive perfume as art

15th January, 2008

Editor's note: This is the third of our exclusive 'deleted scenes' from Chandler Burr's forthcoming book, The Perfect Scent. Chandler has written a brief paragraph explaining the context of the piece at the start.

Details of how you can obtain the book, as well as the chance to discuss this extract can be found at the end.


I actually donít remember why my editor wanted this cut, and I strenuously disagreed with himóand still do; I love this sectionóbut you pick your battles, and I gave up on this.

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The fact is that perfume as an art form is limited biologically by the sense of smell. Christopher Brosius once commented to me, "Maybe the reason we donít perceive perfume to be art is that itís almost impossible to experience it as a group." Maybe the problem is that smell in homo sapiens can't convey much intellectual information.

Touch is perhaps the most restricted sense. For communicating information, touch basically gives you rough, smooth, hot, sharp. It's "Yo, this razory thing could slit open a vein" or it's "This soft thing would make me very happy if I were lying next to it" and thatís it. When you touch a piece of Thai silk, you can blend the data with the visual and arrive at sophisticated judgments from "rare and beautiful and $400/yard" to "cheap.Ē But unless you're blind, by itself touch gives you an intellectual process that's about as complicated as "Smooth. Nice. Like. Good. Rough. Hard. Danger. Bad." Touch is a pretty stupid sense.

We've evolved such that two senses, seeing and hearing, convey massive amounts of information, two huge pipelines pouring into our brains. They're the most intelligent senses for homo sapiens, the wide bandwidth senses. Our brains can assimilate so much more, in so much more detail and with such greater accuracy via the eyes and ears. So a painting, a stop sign, directions to the restaurant, the look on the guy's face as he gives you the directions will convey worlds to us. Combine them both in a song and pack the greatest punch.

Last night I slept in sheets the color of fire
Tonight I lie alone again and curse my own desire
Sentenced first to burn and then to freeze
And watch by the window
Where the boys grow in the trees

A scent? Your dog goes out, and everything is covered in writing, blasting signals, but this is because he's neurologically set up to read it all. This molecule is X and X is left by Y, and Y comes by Z times and is R feet tall and likes to eat T and, now this molecule, this is lovely, B leaves it when she urinates, and it means she's eaten K and she's sexually receptive, note to self, and, wow, those molecules are L and P, and they'reÖ

On and on. If you had the dog's information in written form, you could do the same, but you don't.

"I used to have a labrador," Brosius told me, "who developed a bizarre spinal menengitis, and the vet said 5% of these dogs donít make it, and so I drove through to the vet hospital five hours away in blinding snow, but he was my dog and my friend and I was going to do whatever it took to make sure he got better, which ultimately he didnít. So just before he had to be put down, he was completely blind, and his back legs were paralyzed, so I had to hold up his back legs with a towel. And it had just snowed the night before, and even so he raced out into that snowy field with me running behind him supporting his back half, and he started to sniff, and I realized he knew more about that field than I ever could."

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About the author: Chandler Burr

Chandler Burr is a journalist, author, and curator of olfactory art. Burr at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. Burr was the New York Times perfume critic from 2006-2010. Burr is also the author of two perfume books: "The Emperor of Scent" and "The Perfect Scent"


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    • TaoLady2 | 17th January 2008 21:59

      If nothing else, this made me love CB even more....:goes upstairs to reapply [SIZE="5"]Lavender Tea: