Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Death of the Perfumer?

(Pardon the long post...I got a little fired up.)

Some time ago, I made the case for comparing fragrances to one another. Some people believe that you shouldn't compare, because each fragrance is a singular work of art, and the intentions of the perfumer in creating the work must be respected. In making my own case, I appealed to the French literary critic Roland Barthes' idea of the death of the author, noting that when a perfume enters the larger world, it belongs to the people. For example, we categorize them not only for easy sales (Men's and Women's; Green, Floral, Citrus, Chypre, Oriental, Gourmand) but also for understanding and classification. We present our impressions of these scents to one another as they are altered by our skin and surrounding environments. Some of our noses are flawed and some of our tastes are fickle, but we love perfume, and so we sniff and discuss.

Certainly if a perfumer decides to include certain notes in a fragrance, he or she knows that the scent will be categorized as such and therefore compared. A scent is only unique in its differences, and in order to understand these, we compare. And then there are the perfumers who create perfumes for specific houses. Their work, although known to devoted perfume fans, is for the public at large generally associated with the house for which they create the perfume (Chanel, Guerlain, Christian Dior, and so on). Indeed, when they are contracted, I suspect they must have some agreement in place to create fragrances in the spirit of the house for which they have agreed to work. If Neil LaBute agreed to make a movie for Disney, well...They'd be looking for it to be signature Disney, not signature LaBute. (And you'd have some seriously confused and messed up kids out there if LaBute made a Disney film, seriously.)

Now, that said, I was surprised to read the article in The New York Times today ("Is a Scent Like a Song? Oui and Non") about the French court's decision that creation of a perfume does not equal the creation of a singular piece of art, and therefore perfumers work cannot be protected, nor can they expect to collect royalties for their work once they are no longer under contract by a specific house. A quote from the article: The court stated, “The fragrance of a perfume, which results from the simple implementation of expertise,” does not constitute “the creation of a form of expression able to profit from protection of works of the mind.” (I'm sorry for not linking to the article, but after seven days they move their articles to the archives, and you must pay to see them if you don't have a subscription.)

The law suit was the result of a perfumer who sued the company for which she had previously worked when they refused to pay royalties for one of her creations after she was no longer in their employ (Nejla Bsiri-Barbir, who created Dune for Chritian Dior). The basis of the loss was this: "...the highest court in France ruled that making perfume is not an artistic creation, but the work of a mere artisan." (And you know LaBute would continue to get royalties from Disney while his movie aired on cable and the Disney Channel and so on.)

It's one thing to compare fragrances, to categorize, to critique, and so on. Any product that enters the market, be it a dress, a painting, a novel, or a piece of music, comes to belong to an audience. Art can exist without an audience, but it cannot live. And so, the death of the parfumeur. However, to say that a perfume is not an artistic creation--with this I wholeheartedly disagree. Perfumers are no less artists than novelists, painters, or composers. And although it may be crude to say so, they deserve to be paid for their work, even after they have left the employ of whatever company contracted their expertise.

One of the other things that bothered me in the article was this idea of "the talent of the nose." While some maintain this talent is innate--a gift of sorts, which you either have or you don't--others say that developing a nose takes work and is learned like any other skill. In general, this ongoing argument in all the arts just bugs the crap out of me. The simple fact is that talent ceases to matter if you can't translate it into anything. Very often, people who do have innate talent are horrible failures, because they believe they don't need any training, discipline, or help. On the other hand, where most arts are concerned, no matter how hard a person trains, if the person lacks talent, he or she will eventually hit a ceiling. (I'm speaking in the purest terms here, without factoring in luck and the public's appetite for all things mediocre, which sometimes catapult a so-so talent straight to the top.) You see this all the time in writing. No matter how much talent you have, writing takes a great deal of dedication and discipline. If you have a little bit of talent and a lot of discipline, you can go far. I think the same must be true for the perfumer: no matter his talent, he must be disciplined enough to continue to train his nose, to push boundaries and develop scents that are unique.

When I smell one perfume and it reminds me of another perfume, never do I think that the perfumer must have set out to create that effect. Because scent is so closely linked to memory (and great noses surely know this?...After all, their own creations are often based on their own memories and impressions), I understand that my experience is as unique as the intention of the person who created it. In fact, scent alone seems to be the one art form that cannot really be dictated by public taste. I can think I should like Beethoven's Ninth or Shakespeare's history plays or Degas's ballerinas because the public's idea of an educated person with good taste may dictate that I do, but if I spray a perfume on my wrist and it smells awful (Mitsuoko...over here! I'm talking to YOU), no dictate can make me say I like it, because it just doesn't smell good on me. Period. What is more singular than that, and therefore more artistic?