The possibility of an olfactory aesthetic has long been denied by Western philosophers. For Kant, smell (olfactus) and taste (gustus) belonged to the order of the ‘lower senses’ – bestial, primative and subjective modalities. By contrast, touch (tactus), hearing (auditus) and above all, sight (visus) he characterised as ‘higher senses’, their supposed objectivity suiting them to universal judgements of aesthetic value arising from the free play of the imaginiation.
This aesthetic privileging of the visual and auditory was, of course, not new even in Kant’s time. Allied to our culture’s deeply rooted oculocentrism is an ontological argument that positively relates status with temporal extension. Thus, olfaction is absent from the sensorium associated with the five fine arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry – its sense objects being highly ephemeral and incapable of enduring as artistic works.
Kant however, went beyond merely perpetuating this ancient heirarchy. He drove the wedge between the lower and the higher senses yet deeper by articulating a distinction between the merely agreeable (ideosyncratic) and the beautiful (universal); in his conception, aesthetic judgements as concerning pure beauty are devoid of individual interest and give rise to an apprehension of “Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck” (‘purposiveness without purpose’), something smell, which is so intimately connected with the intimate, can never produce.
Kant’s ideas (bridged by Hegel) constitute the foundations of modern aesthetics and more than two centuries later, it is notable that there have been few serious attempts to challenge him in relation to olfaction.
Exceptional was Edmond Roudnitska, creator of the totemic Eau Sauvage (Dior, 1966) and Femme (Rochas, 1943) and author of numerous articles and books including Le Parfum (Presses Universitaires de France, 1980) in which he sets out a manifesto for an an olfactory aesthetic. Having posed the question ‘what are the criteria for a work of art?’, Roudnitska sought to demonstrate how perfumery satisfies Etienne Souriau’s five imperatives before concluding ‘La composition des parfums est l’art abstrait par excellence’ (p.99).
If the Art world yet remains largely unresponsive to Roudnitska’s arguments, his assertion that perfumery can attain to the level of Art has nevertheless found a receptive ear among advertisers. This is illustrated by Estée Lauder’s 2013 publicity for its fragrance Modern Muse:
Shot in the the spiraling interior of the Soloman R Guggenheim Museum, Craig McDean’s image carries a clear echo of Roudnitska’s thesis, situating perfume in an artistic sphere whose Modernity contrasts with the Classicism evoked in Gucci’s L’Arte advert of the early '90s. Although formally depicting the Χάριτες, the Imperial Roman sculpture represented in the latter served as inspiration for Bertel Thorvaldsen’s 1807 work The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon, thereby setting up an intriguing dialogue between the two texts.
Like the Charities, the Μοῦσαι constituted a group of minor goddesses of variable composition. The Muses were also considered to be the source of inspiration and knowledge for certain of the sciences and arts, including astronomy, history, dance and poetry. Later, they became shorthand for artistic inspiration in a general sense, thus allowing Lauder to place perfumery under their influence.
Visually, this elevation of perfumery is reflected both by the (aptly named) model Arizona Muse’s upward gaze and by the downward rays of light suggestive of divine illumination. Frank Lloyd Wright famously conceived of the Guggenheim as a ‘temple of the spirit’ and here the religious connotations dovetail with a linguistic play on the etymological link between Muse < Gr. Mοῦσα and museum < Gr. Μουσεῖον meaning ‘seat of the Muses’. Meanwhile, Ms. Muse’s hand-to-temple gesture (that not-so-subtly turns her arm into an arrow pointing towards the product) recalls for us the common assumption that Mοῦσα is to be connected with the Indo-European root *men- ‘to think’. Muse the perfume then, is inspired, artful, thoughtfully fashioned; in short, everthing other perfumes sold with images of semi-naked, lustful bodies are not.
Of course, Lauder’s positioning does nothing to further the actual debate and other industry voices, including those of perfumers like Francis Kurkdjian1, will continue to insist that what they do is not Art. Perhaps then, what is needed to move the discussion along is a reframing of the issue. For this, we could do much worse than follow the suggestion of Grayson Perry who, in his 2013 Reith Lecture, argued that the question we should be asking ourselves is not ‘is it Art?’ but rather ‘is it any good?’.
 “It’s a very romantic vision of creation — the tortured artist — but perfume is not art. You can have an artistic touch doing it, but it is not an art. Even if you try to infuse it with uniqueness and creativity, at the end of the day, perfume is a commercial product.” Interview with Francis Kurkdjian, 4/2/16 published at: http://www.thenational.ae/arts-life/luxury/exclusive-a-chat-with-the-my-burberry-perfumer-francis-kurkdjian (accessed 18/9/16).
Perfumer Annie Buzantian has similarly rejected the ‘Art’ tag, insisting what she engages in is Craft. See Cathy Newman’s work “Perfume: The Art and Science of Fragrance,” National Geographic Society, 1998, p.116.