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  • Jordan Bryan

6 REASONS PERFUMERY IS ART, SO SMELL THE GODDAMN ROSES

Updated: Feb 9


When I share my perfume making journey with strangers, I say I’m an artist. Reactions are generally positive but quizzical. The latter usually focuses on whether perfume is art at all. Yet as an artist, artistic grants and studio space is mostly for visual arts. I feel the polite pause and smiles of strangers when I affirm my identity.


Revolutionary initiatives are beginning to acknowledge art’s value to society, but they make no mention of perfume in this new frontier. Despite our creative practice, perfumers lack the same legal protections of our works as other artistic mediums.


This partly comes down to the attitude of large industries and brands, and their influence on pop culture. Fashion (an industry with its own fight for artistic merit) keeps the focus on its clothes, yet much of the business model is merch and scent is no exception. To bolster creative credentials, and diversify revenue streams, companies and celebrities use white label scents. In favour of an effortless image, perfume marketing often actively excludes its wearers, and ignores the granular contexts of perfume design.


To them, perfume is a product and indeed this can be the case. This may contribute to the lack of scalable perfume marketing as a craft. Often lampooned, a punchline is that perfume dare take itself seriously. This misinforms the public and leaves smaller, artisan perfume houses with an unfair narrative to fight. Public and industry attitudes undermine the creative decisions and techniques that go into each perfume in the world.


Here are 6 reasons why perfume is art, further exploring the erasure of perfume from artistic recognition.


Let’s start by understanding art and commerce in the public consciousness, and how this is changing. To do this, we can compare the diachronic (traditional, widespread, perhaps disputed today) and synchronic (current, accurate, perhaps lesser known) meanings of each term.


DIACHRONIC MEANINGS OF ART AND COMMERCE AT TIME OF WRITING:

Art is diachronically defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
Commerce is diachronically defined as “the activity of buying and selling, especially on a large scale.”

(Oxford English Dictionary)


Art’s traditional definition appears rigidly defined and heavily biased to visual works. It also dictates how artistic works should be used and perceived. While a clear definition of art it is too rigidly defined in the modern era, and echoes the traditional gatekeeping of artists by those who didn’t create the work. It excludes nonvisual works, helping explain explaining perfume’s exclusion from artistic recognition.


Commerce is clearly defined as an exchange of goods and services, and many perfumers use their products to do so. This definition ignores both design and intent- commerce is just the distribution mechanism. Many professional perfumers make completely bespoke, artisan perfume. Many hobbyists make perfumes gifts, enjoyment or personal use. Still, these actions meet resistance when considered as art.


SYNCHRONIC MEANINGS OF ART AND COMMERCE AT TIME OF WRITING:

Art is synchronously defined as “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation”.
Commerce is synchronously defined as the “interchange of ideas, opinions, or sentiments” or “the exchange or buying and selling of commodities on a large scale involving transportation from place to place”

(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)


The modern definition of art divorces artistic works from their medium. This allows greater inclusion of nonvisual mediums like perfume. By defining art in terms of skill, the craftsmanship of perfume can be compared to classical mediums of art. By keeping the focus on skill, art is also divorced from perception of the artistic work itself. This excludes art’s gatekeepers from the definition of art, reflecting the internet’s democratisation and fragmentation of artistic culture, and allows artistic intention to be included in perfume’s fight to be art.


The first synchronic definition of commerce reflects the new digital economy, adding human sensibility to the commercial mechanism. These sensibilities draw parallels with the diachronic definition of art. With the second synchronic meaning, this shows a breakdown of the starving artist myth so often used to legitimise art, by recognising artistic elements in commercial decisions.


Artistic recognition is slowly diversifying, as is the content and intent of commerce; as public consensus grows here, perfume deserves artistic recognition in the new guard.


A big part of perfume’s dismissal from artistic discussion is commerce, the implication being that commerce negates artistic expression.


Setting aside the myth of the starving artist- we’ll get to that later- many recognised arts are backed by global, multi-billion dollar industries. In the music industry, record labels are infamous for their commercial practices, to the point that the value and proliferation of music heavily depends on sales and streaming figures. Yet recording artists are still recognised as artists; even commercial and marketing decisions such as release strategy are seen as artistic extensions. This shows a double standard in how perfume art relates to commerce.


Including record labels, many commercial endeavours directly derive their wealth from artistic endeavour. This is much of the art community’s rage as AI becomes mainstream, and part of the ethical debate on social media’s content moderation. Influencers and freelancers create artistic works to make money.


There is also the fact that in capitalistic systems, art will always have commercial constraints. Let’s say…


  1. You want to make a perfume from scratch, for yourself or as a gift. In addition to possible knowledge gaps it’s likely you have a budget, so you’re unlikely to buy professional mixing and measuring equipment, and your choice of ingredients is expensive. You use your baking equipment, diluting the fragrance to make it last.

  2. You’re a professional perfumer submitting your scents for assessment. Your design has tested best in focus grouping, and happens to be your favourite design, but it fails the safety report and must be revised before legal sale. You make the changes while attempting to recreate the scent everyone liked.


In 1, the intent is pure artistic expression but budget, a commercial constraint, affects the artistic process. In 2, there is mixed artistic and commercial intent held back by a different commercial constraint; compliance. In both cases, the artistic development must adapt to commercial constraints. There are countless other examples in the arts; stage production and tour routing; software licensing; study and training; the nepo baby debate. Perfume, like all arts, must consider the economics.


Art and commerce each affect how the other is designed and executed, and each interpret contemporary social issues. For these reasons, perfume needs more recognition as an art form.


A large part of perfume’s erasure as an artform is its naked commercial intent. Despite changing understandings of what art and commerce mean, and several overlaps between art and commerce, this has not yet permeated the public’s casual awareness of perfume. A popular tenet of art is that it is somehow made less ‘pure’ by commerce. I’m here to say this: how dare you.


How dare you judge the monetisation of art? That is to gaslight artists’ lived experience under capitalism- a system you’re purporting to oppose but which you’re actively weaponizing (through shaming and stonewalling) to divide and devalue artistic labour. This is art that comes at a monetary, mental and emotional cost to capitalism, and which may be needed to sustain the artist’s journey and survival. Artists deserve to be paid for their work; benefactors, investors, and buyers have always existed for our work. It should not be shameful or controversial to demand said payment. Perfume’s honest navigation of capitalism shouldn’t be weaponised against it. The “starving artist” myth is toxic, harmful and offensive to all artists and the practice of art.


If art is to be accessed and appreciated under capitalism- a system society is too lazy and selfish to change- that art often needs commercialisation at scale.


For this reason, it is counterproductive to delegitimise art with commercial intent. Budget lines and merchandising don’t necessarily have artistic intent, but do function as an access point and proxy for the main artistic vision. Luxury brands understand this, artistry helps create the commercial value proposition. To imbue proxies with this value, creative decisions must be made to make them congruent with the main artistic vision.


In the context of capitalism, art needs commerce to sustain itself. Where wealth disparity exists, commerce can be used to provide some level of access to art for all. It is incorrect and harmful to define art using the clarity of its commercialisation. This is why perfume deserves formal recognition as an artform.


Our society affords gatekeepers artistic authority, not the artist, and this method is both flawed and unchecked. Art’s traditional gatekeepers have ceded some power in the internet era, but still hold considerable sway as new forms of gatekeeping arise. Caprice and abuse of power, nepotism and discrimination, conflicts of interest, parasocial relationships, and surveillance capitalism all impact the art made, seen and celebrated in society today. For these reasons, gatekeepers lack the objectivity and credibility needed to cover smell in art.


There is also a classist double standard when we look at traditional, exclusive artistic circles. Famous works can sell for millions yet art fraud is rife, poorly policed and reluctantly discussed. Euphemism, privilege, opacity and perceived competence uphold this failing culture. Why should art with lower price points or cultural importance be held to a harsher standard?


Gatekeeper trends and assumptions can actually limit artistic growth and expression. Industry trends- be these fashion, music, algorithmic or new tools and mediums- can sideline art that doesn’t fit an aesthetic or game the system. Corruption, bias and bids for relevance may inform these trends and assumptions. Unchecked, this can lead to narratives like “black doesn’t sell”, “four quadrant hit” or “that’s not art”. Gatekeeping suppresses the breadth of art available to us all, by upholding and not challenging or exploring the status quo.


Algorithms, fandoms, and digital tools have democratised art but are arguably its new gatekeepers. AI and search engines are known to return inaccurate information, and their goal is to support the financial goals of surveillance capitalism. In online communities stan culture is rife and consensus rules to dangerous degrees of delusion and entitlement, yet this can be incorrect in the wake of self-reflection or new information. Digital tools such as AI and template design tools are changing traditional art forms and the means of artistic production. The impact of the arts’ democratisation is destabilising what art is and how it’d defined; therefore, the artistic standard for perfume keeps having its goalposts shifted.


To summarise this section many gatekeepers are self-titled, entitled, and full of crap. While entitled to opinion, much of its legitimacy is perceived, and filtered through the lens of bias, self-interest, and capitalistic strategy. Art is also subjective, so there should be no objective critique of or consensus what art is. So, in my opinion, perfume can be art.



Art and commerce each create and respond to society’s emotional and practical need. The point of any commercial endeavour (in theory) is to make money by meeting (and creating?) this need. Artistic works often comment or express these same needs, and how we navigate them as humans.


Perfume meets a commercial need; status and personal grooming. Artistically, a need is met through branding and emotion regulation using scent’s access to the limbic system, via interaction with the olfactory bulb. The latter affords perfume the same emotional impact as traditional artistic works.


Perfumes can elicit similar hormonal responses to art, though the trend is not absolute and the former is a direct biochemical process. Passive viewing of visual art was found to help release endorphins and reduce stress signals. In aromatherapy, certain essential oils (and common perfume ingredients) have been found to reduce stress, with backing by other studies.


Even though perfume and visual arts use different mechanisms- I’m arguing neither for correlation or causation of these mechanisms- the human condition’s emotional conclusion is the same. Perfume, like traditional artforms, can deeply impact one’s lifestyle and beliefs- as shown in the cultural importance of certain scents and artistic works in history. For these reasons, perfumery deserves recognition as an art form.


I’m a perfumer but I also write and produce music and started learning to draw and code. In my personal creative journey, I've found each follows a similar process.


The beginning usually starts with a rough concept or brainstorm into a seed idea. For music, this is the melodic or lyrical hook. For perfume it’s a theme or anchor ingredient.


Then comes the rough design- the buggy sandbox code that angers and embarrasses you, a skeleton track in FLStudio while struggling on a verse, scent samples that stink of citrus. In perfume, that means deciding on ingredients that go together, smelling and feeling slightly ill until I get it right. The occasional Google of embarrassingly basic information ("sillage define").


Then come the edit- choosing a perfume sample and balancing the recipe; mixing, mastering and switching samples in FLStudio; tidying and debugging the code and visuals in Unity.


Then come the iterations- scents rejected by the compliance gods; mixing and mastering the track (again); testing your game’s rulebook, cursing the programming changes this will entail.


Each of these creative processes is far more complex but the bones are the same and perfume is present in all. I can only speak to my own experience, but when I make all of these things I feel the same anxieties and wonderment.



I used to put myself down when I'd call myself an artist or considered perfume an art, to ‘keep myself in check’. I’d call it “smelly water” or “an expensive, undrinkable cocktail”.


While both can be true more often the art of perfume is ignored, downplayed and appropriated. The perfume industry and its partners are complicit. Western culture also struggles to reconcile art and commerce, with an unwritten rule that the two must be separate.


Yet perfume is art, and art can be commerce. The perfume industry needs to stop dismissing its own artistic merit; perfumery’s process and impact are the same as any other artform.


As a society, we need to question the value of art and commerce but recognise the two can be mutually exclusive. We also need to question who and what determines art’s landscape and why.

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