Every year the Art and Olfaction Awards commissions a writer to create a text. This year, we asked London-based Eddie Bulliqi to do the honors.
HOMAGE TO THE DISGRUNTLED CRITIC
by Eddie Bulliqi
Not all perfumes are great and not all perfumers are geniuses, yet the critical reception of contemporary perfumery is whitewashed with ideality. Rarely do we read a negative review. Fragrance criticism tends not to be very critical at all, save the odd invective against fruity florals or ethyl maltol. This blanket positive critical landscape is concurrent to another phenomenon: the value of fragrance is in the unique position of being somewhat fought over by feuding segments of the industry (mass-market conglomerates desperate to keep scent a commodity; new niche stubbornly heralding the return of luxury perfume-making; The Institute for Art and Olfaction advocating artistic approaches). The shape of future fragrance culture is held within a pendulum that could go either way (high / low) based on how its main actors respond right now. My thesis today is that the distinct fear of negative criticism in the perfume world is holding the medium back from its artistic aspirations, and this deficiency is caused by an over-emphasis on both pleasure and subjective response.
Surely it is unrealistic to propose that 90% of fragrance production over the last decade has been superbly executed but press commentary would have us think so. I want to make it very clear that I am not heralding an undemocratic, elitist, members’ club vision. My complaint is founded instead on the notion that the overwhelmingly positive praise that is heaped on new fragrances by writers with very little counterpoint or contention from the rest of the industry is in fact counterproductive for the elevated fragrance culture they crave to drive up price points, uphold niche values, and establish artistic precedents as:
• it is not representative of the output (there have been many great scents but also many bad ones, too)
• it builds distrust in consumers over potentially illegitimate stories
• and positive-only frameworks do not provide many opportunities for learning and progress by focusing less on the deconstruction of scent architecture / effects / balances that can be improved and more on spiralling generalist adjectival sprawls about abstract prettiness
A more balanced patchwork of both negative (in the sense of demanding) and positive (in the sense of appreciative) reviews will help the latter stand out and will aid the recognition of fragrance as an art that has range, mission, and guardians. Both in terms of its historical lifecycles and evaluation, art (whether plastic, musical, literary) has always been tied to the appraisal of the unsuccessful as means to ground and distinguish what is worth saving. Critics, awards, and judging are ways of establishing hierarchy, grade, tier, and category – mapping a genealogy of reception. There is no need for these parameters to be set as absolute – they can be fought over continuously until there is nothing left to say, but the important thing is that these conversations are happening and trying to generate lasting and truth-finding propositions about the manner in which fragrance as a medium is able to successfully or unsuccessfully communicate ideas and sensations to its recipients. True criticism opens up new meanings; praise culture pushes fragrance back to the design bin in which all experiences are nice and the only applicable question is of which grade of nicety. What’s the point in that?
Pleasure as pleasantry
One of the core tenets of the olfactory experience is that it is highly effective at evoking the feeling of pleasure and the memory of pleasurable histories. The propensity of the modern fragrance industry to avoid challenging criticism can in part be explained by its assignment of pleasure as the paramount category for significance – it has always been a prevalent dictum that the more pleasure a fragrance gives you, the better it is. Of course, all of the arts partially intersect with this mechanic and have negotiated beauty and pleasure in different contexts across their histories; however, perfumery has experienced that rare occurrence of transforming pleasure into a synonym for ‘pleasantry’. That is to say, the impact and efficacy of most fragrances on the market today are evaluated on whether they demonstrate pleasurable reactions and sensations in smellers (akin to beauty, enjoyment, happiness) through pleasantries (pleasing, inoffensive, holistically ‘nice’ effects).
It is highly unusual for so much emphasis to be placed on superficial positive reinforcement in an art (i.e. pleasantness) over more psychologically rich imperatives such as desire, sex, satisfaction, fulfilment, transgression, subversion, sadness, shock, fear, anger, even euphoria, joy, comfort – categories of human identity whose meanings and realisations are all up for grabs and always changing. In contrast, pleasure through pleasantry and ‘nice-smelling’ juices couldn’t seem any more boring and any less artistic. Not only does the matrix for pleasure as gleaned through innocuous beautification demand less rigorous and shallower analysis from the perfume critic, it also confines the medium of perfume to banal afterthought / sterile accessory and is killing any shot fragrance has at being deified into gallery space.
Judgemental criticism as found in the film industry is also often avoided in perfumery because it is so linked in people’s minds to the concept of taste and, as fragrance is considered to be so intrinsically subjective, many reject the practice of critical appraisal from the outset for crossing a line into false objectivity. Far too much is left unsaid in perfumery as a result; subjectivity has become extreme and risks destroying critical values and ambitions. I have two responses to this premise. Firstly, good critics should avoid at all costs supplanting their personal palette to the analysis unless it is clearly addressed as anecdotal and acknowledging of phenomenological mechanics; proper criticism should attempt to trace the links between form and meaning, and between a work and its audience, to better understand the cultural processes and potential inherent codes operating on an artwork’s reception and usage. I do not believe whether I like sandalwood or not to be particularly useful or important to readers other than to insinuate the likely conclusion and prejudices of my review.
Secondly, subjectivity reigns king over more panoramic assessments of perfumery right now as it implicitly rejects a teleology for scent semiotics. In the era of double-post-modernism and Trumpian post-truth, teleological leanings (templates for overarching logical endpoints to phenomena and knowledge) are unpopular insofar as they often disintegrate the value of the individual under the power of the force majeure. Teleology is often associated with religious principles and therefore a challenge to today’s predominantly atheist academic procedure. I do not believe teleology to be defunct for assessing meaning in scent; whilst perfumery may not have the same strength nor breadth of symbolism as the other arts, a critic’s job is to explore like a theoretical archaeologist the (relativist) ethical facet of meaning-making mechanics at play in a work: ethical in the sense of comparison; balance; societal agreement; internal love and strife; and projection of selfness, forever unanswered. How strongly is that voice coming through, what is it saying, and does it make me agree?
For me, the definitive example is posed by the statement vs question clause: yes, Saussurian signs are arbitrary, but is there a best-in-class signifier to complete the sign? Is there a best possible way to express the idea, exhibiting peak olfactory architectonics to ground its voice? If so, then commitment to a hypothetical teleology can both acknowledge and at the same time reconcile the extreme subjectivity in fragrance analysis that is so popular at this time. All opinions are valid, but we should be aiming for more than consensual unawareness. Never just accept the mask, there is always something behind it. It is more than just bergamot – it is love.
Eddie Bulliqi is a perfume writer and aspiring perfumer, based in London, working on perfume theory, the semiotics of olfaction, and the relationship between smelling and philosophy. He read History of Art at the Courtauld Institute and is currently part of the Global Marketing department at Jo Malone London (Estée Lauder Companies).
Learn more about Eddie here.
Published by: artandolfactionawards in community