Art / Blogs / Perfumes

For the Love of Perfume: Blogging and its discontents

Chanel No. 5 Perfume (Blue/Yellow) by Andy Warhol

Full disclosure: I am an amateur enthusiast of perfume on Stage 3 of NST’s brilliantly described progression of perfumania. In my short time as a blogger, I have encountered questions such as are there too many of them, are bloggers just diletantes seeking monetary or critical fame, are they using the platform towards means that have nothing to do with perfume at all, etc. Recent posts in Pere de Pierre, OlfactaRama, and Feminine Things raise such questions to an impressive number of dissenting views.

As print magazines slowly become extinct, writers who used to get paid very little for their work are paid even less for electronic versions of what they would have written anyway. In the art world, a place with which I am very familiar, critics have been asking themselves the same questions as in the perfume world: How do we stay away from monied interests (the art market) and retain our independent voices? What point of view can we bring to the dialog of good versus bad that is unique? How can we continue to write about what we love when there are so many voices chiming in claiming to be experts in what we do and undermining our authority?

Jerry Saltz

In the case of the art world, one highly visible and divisive figure around the status of the critic is Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer-prize winning critic for New York Magazine, judge on the reality television show, “Work of Art,” and social media commentator. Saltz constantly struggles to keep his numbers of Facebook followers below 5000 by doing periodic purges of those who do not participate in his many discussions about art and politics. His use of Facebook as a platform is controversial among critics who think he is dumbing down criticism. Saltz’s writing is down to earth, plain speaking, passionate and yet highly authoritative because he knows the subject of which he writes. He is not afraid to tell an artist that they made an ass of themselves, nor does he shy away from hobnobbing with powerful gallerists and auctioneers who the public perceive to hold the purse-strings and therefore make him less impartial. In my opinion, Saltz’s approach is populist, democratic, and refreshing in the face of so much pretentious elitism in the art world.

Artist and blogger Sharon Butler writes this in the Huffington Post:

When I started blogging at Two Coats of Paint, blogs were almost exclusively considered the domain of exhibitionist teenagers and oversharing adults. This reputation was somewhat deserved, but I still loved the immediacy of the process, the ability to link easily to related online content, the conversations that developed with other artists, and the small but generous art-blogging community. Then Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools emerged and expanded the internet’s potential as an engine of dialogue and mobilization well beyond the whims of narcissistic shut-ins.(1)

After attending a conference about whether or not there was a “crisis” in art criticism, painter and professor Laurie Fendrich writes this in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

No, there is no crisis, because millions of people who were never heard before now write art criticism, and write it about artists and art heretofore ignored. They put it out there on their individual blog sites, non-paying group blog sites, or on their Facebook and Twitter pages. These millions of voices, dispersed over the vastness of the Internet, bleating out iterations of “art criticism,” have opened up the art world. At the same time, they’ve weakened the chance for any consensus to form around what constitutes good art, as well as diminished the possibility for particular critics writing in such publications as The New York Times or The New Yorker to convey authoritative opinions about art.

The panel members touched on all the relevant points—that art critics now write without editors (code for the fact that an awful lot of art writing is horrific), that the role of critics as taste-makers no longer appeals to either artists or the general public (who are you to tell me what art I like?), that critics today eschew making judgments (a fascinating topic in itself), and finally, that the conflation of art, spectacle, fashion, movies, and general celebrity culture into one mushed party has deformed art criticism to the point where it frequently amounts to no more than celebrity news or lists of auction prices. (2)

I’ve enjoyed reading Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s “Perfumes: The Guide,” and Chandler Burr‘s books and his reviews in the New York Times. There are around one hundred blogs about perfume, and there are ones that are exemplary for me, like Now Smell This, Grain de Musc, Olfactoria and Persolaise, among many others. Considering how much money the perfume industry makes, it’s a relatively small number of writers in comparison to art criticism, where almost every major publication has a staff art writer.

Yes, there are experts, people who have worked in the industry of perfumery, who know all of the players and history, can identify every note in Estée Lauder’s Beautiful, and tell you the exact year that Guerlain moved its boutique to the Champs-Elysées. I will never try to challenge their authority in any way. I will, however, claim my right to creatively research and write about something that I love, and continue to participate in this great democracy of ours. If you want to read it, great! If not, I’m okay with it, too. What I hope to do here is bring something else to the table. I want people who love perfume to understand how it figures profoundly into our culture, that it isn’t a frivolous and unnecessary accoutrement to our already spoiled lives. As I write, I learn something about the world, too. Perfumes add beauty to our mundane realities, allow us to travel to far off lands without ever leaving where we are. There are few things that can transform our world in such an immaterial way. Writing about these ephemeral and fleeting experiences can raise the level of interest in scents as an art form, elevate it so that there will be a scent critic in every major newspaper around the world. Writing is the only way we can to allow perfumes, and our mortal selves, to live on for just a little while longer.

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10 thoughts on “For the Love of Perfume: Blogging and its discontents

  1. Well, the obvious snappy comeback to opinions is that classic..we all have them and all of them…stink, especially when they don’t agree with our own! 😉

    I don’t think that there are too many bloggers, since I do believe the net is certainly big enough for all of us. This isn’t at all the same thing as saying that all perfume blogs are equally good or bad – just…different. We each have our own personal inclinations and preoccupations in perfume, and sooner or later, they will show. Some are very straightforward and clear, others are more poetic in their approach, and there’s plenty of room for that, too!

    I became a perfume blogger by complete accident, and never in a million years expected it to evolve as it did, but one thing I will say – although I’m one of those heretic “ambitious” writers, in that I would certainly like to get my name out as a writer, and if it happens through conveying a personal passion, then how can that be bad?

    The real question is…too many perfume bloggers for..what, precisely? Too many to keep up with, too many ignoramuses, too many armchair critics who simply set themselves as self-professed experts on the vast and infinitely complex art form of…perfume? If that’s what prompted this debate, then that’s the true issue, but after 18 unexpected months of perfume blogging myself, I can only say what I’ve come to know – the phonies, the snarks and the wannabes will invariably give themselves away. It’s true in perfume blogs as in any other kind of writing – the good ones stick with you, and the bad never stick around for that long…;)

  2. So true! In the same way that people can easily become bloggers, they can just as easily drop out, never to be heard from again. You know probably better than I do that writing requires discipline and a passionate interest in the subject of which you are writing. I’ve written criticism about contemporary art in print magazines and monographs on artists and it gives me great satisfaction knowing that someone out there is reading my stuff. Blogging however is different in that I can get feedback and have a dialog in a community of like-minded folks. Jerry Saltz understands the power of social media and that’s why he does it in addition to his print criticism.

    Perfume has only recently become acknowledged by the French cultural ministry as a great art form, and it’s going to take a while before others follow suit, if ever. It’s more than a beauty product if you ask anyone on Basenotes. If Alexander McQueen can have a blockbuster show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I think there could be a show in the future featuring the great noses of our time and their creations. This is why I am so excited about Chandler Burr’s upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. One day perfume is going to be legitimized as art, and I want in my own small way to make it happen by supporting such ventures as a writer.

    There are many who use blogs to get their poetry or chapters of their novels out there, waiting to be discovered by a publisher or agent, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Burr wrote me an email about my post on his show, and I was so incredibly thrilled! He, too, understands the power that us bloggers have in disseminating information within the community, and that gives me more motivation to go on doing this.

  3. Since I was traveling at the time when most of these posts took place, I missed the heat of the moment and still am a little buffled by some of the reactions.

    Ok, I read Pere de Pierre’s comment before it all started – not because I follow his blog regularly but because it was referenced by somebody whose blog I do follow – and cringed a little and went on with my catching-up reading.

    If someone (let’s call them New Blogger or Newbie) cares what somebody else (Expert Blogger – Expert) thinks about Newbie’s blog said Newbie should better listen to Expert’s critics and suggestions to be exactly the way Expert wants Newbie to be – and one day the recognition will come (well, at least from the Expert). But if Newbie can care less for the Expert’s recognition or doesn’t consider Expert to be an expert on the matter why would Newbie be bothered by what Expert says (writes)?

    When you have a goal (be it writing for yourself, making money, getting friends or becoming famous) everything else goes from there. And only you can measure your own success – so why to get upset about “experts'” opinions?

    • Undina,

      Thank you for reading and the articulate reply! I’ve gone through this same situation in the art world from the sidelines, and ultimately the blogs on art that have survived are the ones that are good, so good that word travels by mouth, as in “Hey, I read a great thing on Pablo Picasso today on so and so’s blog. You should totally read it!” The art world is small, but I think the perfume world is, too. As much as everyone talks about the “explosion” of perfume blogs, I find as a writer that there are many that are mostly review blogs, and people only read the ones that are well-written, have enough research and knowledge behind them, and, most importantly, is kind to their readership. I think this last part is key. We’re nothing without our readers. Some want the nitty gritty “expert” stuff, and some just want some warm and fuzzy conversation about something they love. All are legitimate.

      • ‘Some want the nitty gritty “expert” stuff, and some just want some warm and fuzzy conversation about something they love. All are legitimate.’

        That is a perfect summary!

        The other duality in approaches I have tried to evoke (not very well, I sense!) is “feel the void and do it anyway” ie just write to please yourself OR “if you want to get ahead get a hook” – ie for those who wish to stand out in the crowd, consider finding an angle in the widest sense of the term that will make people remember you.

        • Vanessa,

          You are so right. I started my blog for myself, to give me something to think and write about outside of what I normally do. What I have discovered in these few short weeks that I have been doing this is that there is a lovely community of thoughtful, funny, and generous people out there who actually like what I do. YIPPPEEE!

  4. Great post! First, I’d like to defend Jerry Saltz—as you know, I’m a fan of his too. I often wonder why people attack critics who make their criticism accessible to the general public. Why is this bad? Does this not educate laypeople and increase the size of the market in the long run? Any professional critic who can bridge the gap between his jargon-spewing colleagues and a curious public is a treasure. I like Dave Hickey for the same reason.

    I disagree with Laurie Fendrich when she writes that the explosion of bloggers and amateur critics weakens the voice of critics from the Times and the New Yorker. My god, we need them now more than ever! Their authority is even more solid with all the competing smaller voices. And won’t the little bloggers still quote, reference, echo and argue with the big critics? I know I do all of that with Luca Turin, Tania Sanchez, and Chandler Burr, the three best-known fragrance critics out there.

    And I think the public is DYING to be told what to like, whether it’s in art, fragrance, or fashion. Seriously, with so much stuff out there, don’t we all want some help sifting through it? Besides, eventually, the boom in bloggers helps feed smaller brands in fashion and fragrance (not sure about art): enthusiasts who get to know all the department store brands start looking for new things from people who can afford to take more risks. They—we, I guess I should say—have helped create a bigger market for niche brands in fragrance, like Odin and D.S. & Durga (two newish brands I’ve written about recently).

    So, to the question of whether or not there are too many bloggers: no, not at all. But there are probably more than enough lazy bloggers who really don’t contribute anything new. Today I saw two men’s fashion bloggers cut and paste a press release that GQ sent out. That press release misspelled a designer’s name, and the bloggers seemed oblivious to it. And yesterday, I found a blogger who had plagiarized most of a recent post of mine, along with a photo I took. Original writing and reporting is a precious thing! So few people actually do it.

    What the Internet truly needs more of is men’s fragrance bloggers. There just aren’t enough guys out there writing about fragrances from a male perspective.

    –Harry

    • Ultimately, I think the advent of sophisticated information technologies, social networks, and inexpensive personal computing devices have irrevocably altered the landscape of criticism in general, no matter which field. Sadly, it also means that people plagiarize and pass on erroneous information (like your fashion bloggers), which creates snowballing effect of misinformation. At the same time, the wonderful thing about the internet is how quickly readers will respond to BS (i.e. Candy Perfume Boy’s recent troubles with a “Perfume-Free” fanatic, and Olfactoria’s run-in with the owner of a perfume company). I love it all, the good and the bad.

      The perfume blogging community has been indispensable to me as I continue to learn and research the influences perfume has in cultural history. In my own short time as a blogger, I feel like I have made dozens of new friends, which is important to me because I’m not in the industry and I don’t have many others with whom to share my perfumania. I like writing on a subject that engages another part of my brain that needs exercising after spending so much of my day relying on my visual skills. It’s been immensely gratifying for me.

      Regarding male fragrance bloggers, I was sort of shocked when I discovered how many men were on Basenotes until someone told me that it began as a men’s fragrance forum. Now it’s one of the go-to sources of reviews and writing. Despite what you might perceive to be a large number of women who write about perfume, the industry is still very much dominated by men. How many women noses can you name versus the numbers of men? I guess that is a whole other blog post…

      • That’s interesting — I didn’t know that about Basenotes, but now that you mention it, there are an awful lot of dudes on the forums.

        And speaking of the relative dearth of male voices, you know what I miss? Men’s Vogue. It was actually a pretty damn good magazine. It was more effortlessly sophisticated than GQ, more adult than Esquire, and it spoke about men’s fashion in a way that no other magazine did, or has. You actually saw articles that got into the history of brands and manufacturing, without getting too technical or businessy. That’s the sort of thing that I’d like to see about fragrance in general and men’s fragrances specifically.

        That said, more than ever, we’re seeing unisex fragrances becoming the norm among niche brands. This is a good thing. It also means that I can easily discuss fragrances with women and find that we enjoy and wear some of the same stuff.

        Part of my lament about cologne bloggers is related to a deeper concern of mine, one that’s been growing since about 2003, when I read that women outnumbered men for the first time at my college’s medical school. At that time, I was in the English Department, which was about 30% male. In the Art History Department, it was even worse. And once I came to NYC, I was in a publishing program that was a mere 10% male. Men are getting dumber and they’re disengaging. It scares the crap out of me. But that too is another blog post.

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