This post references the radio broadcast "Scratch and Sniff", that can be heard by clicking on the link in the post previous to this one on this blog.
Listening to the radio interview with Chandler Burr, author of The Emporer of Scent, I felt a feeling of likeness, of comfort of being understood. Smell means a lot to me. I am one of those sensitive people. When someone is smoking a cigarette in another car with the window down, two lanes away, at a stoplight, or even in slow traffic, I can easily become nauseated and get a headache. I have a relative that has worn a perfume for as long as I can remember that caused me such olfactory discomfort , that I am convinced that it is one reason why we never had a close relationship. I haven't seen her in years, but I can still smell it clearly when I think about her. When I was a child, my mother drove a woman to church as an act of charity each week, who perpetually needed to shower. I will never forget the torture of sharing that small, enclosed space with her. There is an upside to this sensitivity. I have the most delightful smell experiences. When someone or something smells good to me, it nearly brings ecstacy.
The topic of conversation in this radio broadcast covered the idea of how each of us has our own set of experiences that dictate an emotional reaction to the vibrational input that smell is to our senses. What is stinky or offensive to one person is another's greatest creature comfort, because reaction to scent is not universal, it is subjective. Further, Americans have a problem with smell. It is part of (an unfortunate part of in my opinion) our culture of over-sanitation as well as fear of individuality and being naturally unique. The example of the French was given to us as a way to understand how in some cultures, a certain level of potency is considered an attribute- something attractive and intriguing. Think of the cheeses, the wines and the more distinctive (because they are less obsessively scrubbed and deodorized) natural body musk. With awareness of this American fear of odor, I will not be surprised if when I reveal some of my most comforting smell loves, I am met with great distaste and disgust.
I love the smell of a newborn baby. It is not the bathed in Johnson and Johnson shampoo and fed-from-a-sanitary-bottle-smell that I love. Rather, I love the smell of babies who have been born at home, who still wear the protective layer of white vernix from before birth on their skin, and who have been nursing at my engorged, newly filled breasts and have that smell of warm, spilled, slightly soured Mama milk all over them. I could drink it in. Additionally, I love the odor of my body when I have just given birth days before, and do not want to leave my precious one for even a moment to shower, so my sweat glands are ripe with the hormones emitted from birth and new motherhood. These smells are the ones that have been with me when I have done my best work, have created and nurtured something/someone amazing, and have been absolutely satisfied, happy and living in the present moment.
In case those descriptions rubbed anyone the wrong way, I will list a few more "conventional" favorites: the mineral smell in the atmosphere with a new rain; warm beeswax from candles; whole grain yeasted bread rising and then baking; the sulpher after lighting and blowing out a matchstick; jasmine flowers bottled with oil and diffused in glycerine soap; Autumn in the Western United States; hot spiced apple cider on the stove with cinnamon sticks, oranges and cloves, pine tree sap; my hands after touching a fragrant rosemary shrub, popcorn from my air popper... the list is endless, and when I look at it, I see that even those are all wrapped up in experience. My art museum of pleasure is smelled entirely through my mental and emotional filters. These include my memories, accomplishments, joys, hurts, sorrows and loves. I cannot imagine experiencing something visually that is nearly as satisfying as a good smell. Art? YES!
I am talking about art not only as something that brings sensual pleasure and gratification, which I think is a very simplified but nonetheless acceptable definition of art, but also as something that has gone through an artistic process. What artistic process has a scent gone through? Well, I have two answers for that. Oddly, in recent years, I have rarely liked manufactured perfume. I find it to be overwhelming and like cigarette smoke, it can give me a headache. I have long held slight judgment for those who choose to pollute my air with it's odor, think of it as artificial, and generally disrespect the whole idea of it. When I listened to the radio interview, I heard something that surprised me. I heard it defined as art. Someone smelled two scents, one that was a natural extract from a live flower, and one that was a chemical rendition of a combination of scents. The person sniffing and comparing the two, said they liked the perfume better than the the natural flower scent. The person presenting the two was not remotely surprised. He stated that it is because the perfume is art. It was conceived of, labored over, created and perfected as a perfectly blended combination of ingredients to express a certain scent that conjured up the sensual experience desired by the maker. I felt shocked by this idea. Perfume made as art is just as natural or respectable as an acrylic painting or a mixed media presentation. I may not prefer it for my own sense experience, but now I must see it with renewed respect. So what is scent as art? It could be defined as something that was created carefully by the maker to be art, as in a perfume, or it could be something naturally occurring like the sap of a tree, that when experienced by a person who values it, art happens for them in their mind and body. Art is the creativity- the creation of feelings and expression- art is a mental and emotional process. Smell is art and with it we go through an artistic process seen, heard and experienced by no other.