Submission No. 34

A sensory discussion (Blake Gopnik and Chandler Burr).

Cypriot terracott, ca. 5000bc

Do you have any interest in this? It seems relevant to one that took place at your house, Tom.


My only response is to quote from our Proust reading group blog, in which, as you say, we covered the question of scents with considerable enthusiasm back:

“…My friend Oliver was, I believe, the first who spoke up. He wondered whether not only the more familiar modes of art — painting, music, theater, etc. — fit under [Proust’s] definition, but perhaps other sensory experiences do too.

Prompted by this question, he shared with us a recent experience he had at a museum in New York dedicated to the history of scents. Walking in, he encountered, arrayed at various positions around the gallery, a series of small basins. When he bent his head down to the first of them, it blew a scent into his nostrils. It turns out that the exhibition started with the first perfume, “Jicky” (1889), and led all the way through some of the most iconic scents of the last 125 years, ending on what the program described as a “neo-brutalist” scent, “Untitled” (2010).

Could we also consider these scents art? Oliver asked.

Jumping back in, I questioned whether a scent or a taste, however directly they might invoke involuntary memories and trigger powerful emotional associations (as Proust’s madeleine, dipped in tea, did for him), could be considered art, as a film or a painting or a musical composition is. I added all “design” to this same category of experience-producing objects, crafted by human hands, but nevertheless falling short of being art.

These creations can be exquisite, I agreed. They can be complex (certainly perfumes are complex). It may take extraordinary care to produce them. Still, I argued, if they do not conjure this twofold effect that Proust describes — to make the world at once luminous and fragile — then they do not fit under my definition of art. They are products.

This set the group off.

Florence, who works in the wine industry and appreciates in a very sophisticated way the sourcing and the scents and the tastes of wine, insisted that fine wines can, no doubt, be considered works of art. It astonished her that anyone could deny this.

But I persisted. “Florence, how can wine — let’s say a sack of wine so that we don’t get taken in by the prestige of a bottle — give you a sense of shared humanity, or the passing of time, and loss, and fragility?”

“But it does!” she said. “I drink it knowing the varieties of the grapes, the role of the earth, the sun, the aging, the care taken by the winemaker…”

“Well, then you could say any beverage is a work of art. Milk is a work of art then, too?”

Florence looked at me with deep concern for my sanity. “Milk is not produced by a process,” said Miriam. She made the gesture of pulling an udder. “Tom, do you know where milk comes from?”

“It depends,” I said. “There is a different taste produced by different grasses. The condition of the cows. Or goats! Or sheep! There are different temperatures at which it can be served. Is it low-fat, non-fat, pasteurized? Raw?” I turned back to Florence. If you don’t grant that milk can be art as well as wine, then your argument for wine loses its credibility. Your preference is exposed as a cultural construct.”

Florence just shook her head.

Miriam spoke up again, saying that art, to her, it is more than direct experience. So wine cannot qualify: art is the mediation of experience through an artist’s sensibility.

“Yes,” I added. “And it is doing more than producing an experience. That’s why furniture design or landscape design are not art. They are producing experiences of beauty or comfort, illusions of perfection, but they are… stopping there. They leave off the fragility part.

What about the gardens at Versailles? Or Villandry? asked Alex.

Well, I answered, perhaps those are exceptions, since they are serving a performative function, not unlike a Japanese zen garden. They are intended as art.

Miriam came to my aid. Any piece of landscape design, or piece of furniture, or even a bottle of wine, could be considered art, she argued, but first it would have to be de-contextualized by the artist. (Thus the gardens of Versailles are de-contextualized by their status as artistic works from their inception). Ken mentioned the dadaists use of “found art” to support this idea. In this way, Miriam continued, intention plays an important role in the distinguishing between art and product.

“Yet it is important to remember,” I interjected, “that even though an artist’s intention may be necessary for something to be art, it is not sufficient. There are many bad artists with the highest artistic intentions. But if there work has the effect, on me at least, of closing off my mind, creating the illusion of perfection or pleasure, then I would have to call it “kitsch art” not art. The singer Lionel Richie comes to mind: when he sings “Well I’m eaaaaasy, I’m easy like Sunday morning,” I feel, I admit it, a surge of pleasure not unlike standing in a living room with an inviting interior design. But I don’t feel the twofold effect that Proust describes: I don’t feel the… luminescent fragility, to use a short-hand way of referencing those passages that started us off.

Florence insisted that when she drinks a bottle of good wine, or merely tastes it, she does feel transported, in much the way that Proust describes. She senses the humanity and intention that went into it; she appreciates the process of aging, the barrels used, the care that went into the whole production process. And she appreciates the elusive quality that is achieved by a great bottle: its uniqueness, never to be repeated. “How is this not the same?” she said, squinting at me fiercely.

“Well, based on the experience you have it certainly sounds like art,” I said. “But really it is any ecstatic experience that you are describing. We can have it when walking in the rain. We can have it during the ritual of a summer evening’s candlelit dinner-party with friends. We can have it, certainly, in all of our most intimate encounters. We appreciate all of the planning, the work, the choices, the combination of aesthetics — from the muddy path taken… to the hand-me-down tablecloth under our plates… to the color of the lingerie worn. We sense our shared humanity. We experience intense pleasure. And it all combines to make us feel elevated, perfect, soaring — all, I’m afraid, an illusion. In fact, as art tells us, we are all of that — and ALSO dying, broken, losing coherence, failing at all times. Art, as I define it, combines both modes of awareness at once, both true but in opposition to each other.”

(The entire post, “What Is Art?” can be read here.)

About Tom Clyde

The best place to learn about me is to read my riffs. What could be more revealing? Cheeky, maybe, but true enough.

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