Against The Scentless: Returning The Sense Of Smell To The Arts


When I was first cutting my teeth on English composition in grade school, our class was given a brainstorming exercise in which we were supposed to pick one of five senses to have forcibly removed from us, and then convincingly argue for the merits of our choices. I was maybe the only child in the class that didn’t choose to have my sense of smell taken from me. Naturally, this was seen as an effort by me to build on my reputation as a sort of contrarian curmudgeon-in-training who went against the grain merely for the sake of personal amusement: and while that assessment wasn’t entirely unfounded, I was being completely earnest in this particular instance. Repeat encounters with previously experienced scents regularly outpaced visions or sounds in their ability to help me recall memories in vivid detail, and – more importantly – they brought the highly personal emotional content of those memories dramatically to the fore. They were also emphatic indicators of completely new experiences: the inimitable synthetic sweetness that accompanied the first audiocassette that I bought, and the tang of dry ice spreading across the first concert stage I stood in front of, imparted the feeling of stepping into an alien world that would soon become my spiritual home. Put simply, I found scent to be a very potent trigger to my creativity, and I have wondered for years why it hasn’t play a greater role in 21st century creative life.

Since our art is only as good as what our current state of biological and sensory evolution allows, of course the sense of sight has already won the battle for supremacy. As anthropological records have shown, the size of the human nose has steadily diminished as the eyes gradually moved to the middle of the facial area in order to enhance stereoscopic visual depth (a process that also accompanied humans’ development into erect-standing forest dwellers with a decreasing need for their noses to be near to the ground.) Given its vestigial nature, the sense of smell is seemingly always a contender for the rank of the “lowest” sense, and it is accorded a very minimal degree of cultural respect when considering all it has accomplished. It was our ability to smell that provided us, in much earlier stages of our evolutionary development than those just listed, with an advanced ability to avoid oceanic predators and to seek food from a distance rather than waiting for tactile sensation to alert us to its presence. Smell is, in fact, responsible for the formation of the human brain itself, given that its cerebral hemispheres developed from the olfactory tissue that rested atop the nerve cord. It is not a stretch, then, to say that our complex creative thought processes had their first stirrings in olfaction. The story today is much different, with much of the apparatus for an advanced sense of smell eroded away over the millenia: when compared with, say, the olfactory cells of a pig, humans’ are far less physiologically complex. Surprisingly, humans also have fewer than half the sense receptors of mice (350 to 1,000.) Going lower on the food chain still, insects have been known to communicate largely with smell alone, with Karl von Frisch attributing the well-regulated social behavior of honeybees to their penchant for making smell into a “language.”

In an ecology where so many other lifeforms are highly sensitive to scent, humans’ visuo-centrism can seem like an attempt to further elevate themselves above the animal kingdom, an act which the small but intrepid number of “olfactory artists” have challenged in their works. Some of these works, such as the Arabic gardens praised by N.E. McIndoo as sanctuaries where one “might rejoice in a cultured delight in odor,” show how scents can just as easily satisfy the distinctly human need for aesthetic enrichment as visual spectacles can (while also prefiguring the modern interest in creating intense aesthetic sensations removed from “accepted” performance or exhibition spaces.) Other more contemporary works, informed by Freudian notions of organic repression, question how much humans really gain from further distancing thesmelves from the animal; culturally diminishing the value of scent and thus increasing the inventory of “disgusting” sensations. Such work, aimed at re-introducing the sense of smell into our overall percpetive and critical abilities, provides an interesting compliment to the scientific studies that look skeptically upon the cultural assumptions that a keen sense of smell is more animal than human. It is true, after all, that mice may trump humans in the sheer number of odor receptors that they possess, but only humans possess the advanced olfactory brain regions for processing smells in a way that makes their meanings more nuanced: these are situated within the temporal and frontal lobes that, according to researcher Gordon Shepherd, “enable humans to bring far more cognitive power to bear on odor discrimination than is possible in the rodent and other mammals.”

Whether one is even aware of these biological differences or not, the cultural perception of sight and sound as being the most informative senses has had a profound influence upon our definitions of artistry. Individuals who invite us into their personal world of sight and sound impressions are more likely to be appreciated as legitimate artists, while those who do the same with olfactory sensations are “epicures” or perhaps “aesthetes” – terms that carry with them indictments of un-constructive passivity. Put another way, audio-visual creators are often seen as playing a more active role in the shaping of the world, whereas the producers of olfactory or oral impressions are merely “passing on” an inherited knowledge. Creative individuals with an unusually high degree of sensitivity to the realm of scent are generally slotted into a cultural role as identifiers of new sensations rather than outright inventors of them, and therefore even brilliant minds like the so-called “prince of scent” Luca Turin have not reached that plateau of respect and celebrity reserved for the musical virtuoso or master visual designer.

Worse still, those with an interest in crafting artistic fusions from smells are perceived as not just of lesser importance, but as morally wrong: anti-social hedonists living in a protective bubble of personal decadence. Take for example Jean Des Esseintes, the famed anti-hero of naturalist writer Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 novel À rebours [Against Nature], who is one of the most notable fictional characters bearing traits often assumed to be qualities of real-life afficionadoes of these senses. In one chapter of this dizzying tour through Des Esseintes’ singular obsessions, he uses a whimsical “mouth organ” musical contraption of his own design, featuring “stops” labeled with corresponding musical sonorities – when these are pulled in different configurations, different liqeurs are released from a series of taps into his mouth, and thus the organ “[succeeds] in procuring sensations in his throat analagous to that which music gives to the ear.” This scene is essential to Huysmans’ characterization of des Esseintes, an archetypal dandy who doesn’t seem to care whether his highly subjective aesthetic raptures are communicable or not. While he is intoxicated by all his sensory impressions rather than just enthralled with scent, it’s clear that his character served as a period parody of those who might take an obsessive interest in fragrance.

Without leaving Huysmans’ fin de siecle France, we can already find art movements that believed sensory liberation would precede other ecstatic revelations, and took to the re-discovery of scent with a missionary zeal. This reclamation of lost or ignored sensory faculties was a consuming passion of the French (and also Russian Symbolists) in the late 19th century, following Charles Baudelaire’s poetic invitation to unlock sensory “correspondences.” Aromas were to become a driving force behind the types of ‘experimental’ works concerned with re-calibrating a precariously imbalanced human organism. This was not always done to critical acclaim, though. For example, a famous Parisian performance of Paul-Napoleon Roinard’s Song of Songs, meant to be a synesthetic tour de force in which colored stage lights and musical keys would seamlessly blend with perfumes, ended in farce: those audience members who couldn’t pluck out individual scents from the olfactory chaos simply heckled the Symbolist poets that were spritzing them from the aisles.

Such events, in Western cultural life, were also unfortunate to coincide with full-scale de-odorization campaigns in the theatre and elsewhere, and – as per critic Sally Banes – to “the scientific ambitions of naturalism” which included the “idea of the theatre as a sanitized laboratory.”

This distinction between a “sanitized” mass entertainment based on desensitization, and an avant-garde that opens up the whole sensory apparatus for investigation, is one that persists well into the modern era. Those defiantly uncategorizable artists classed as “intermedia” would add deliberately scent-assisted performances to their repertoires of ritualistic, often atavistic activities. For them, Banes claims that the of smell is partly an oppositional or differentiating ploy marking itself as a more ‘authentic’ culture, i.e. it is “yet another plot turn in the continuing narrative of the theatre’s anxiety toward the mass media.” As a possible catalyzer of new social and aesthetic relationships, it also has a special value for the avant-garde: in the estimation of critic Brian Moeran, its “radical interiority…threatens ‘the abstract and impersonal regime’ that characterizes social order in contemporary societies.”

Spectacles in which the olfactory receptors were targeted in such a way – for example, the macabre machine theater of Survival Research Laboratories in the 1980s and 1990s – have been acknowledged by both performers and audiences as unremittingly confrontational performances, and the artists who take this extra step towards a total sensory experience are generally those who see a constructive value in unpleasant side effects. With such “industrial culture” performance in mind, planned incongruity or contrast in received stimuli has been an effective means of interrogating audiences’ received education and acculturation. When Cosey Fanni Tutti, in her 1976 Women’s Roll, paired the scent of crushed berries with the sight of “wounds” self-inflicted with those same fruits and some stage makeup, her intent to pair “an unpleasant visual stimulus [with] a pleasant olfactory stimulus” served as an incisive commentary on the complexity of feminine personality relative to the simplistic mass media portrayal thereof. With this in mind, it’s not unsurprising that the film industry – or at least that part of it whose products steer clear of “openness to interpretation” by audiences – hasn’t jumped at the opportunity to develop sophisticated scent-projection technology for theaters. After all, escapist entertainment works because of the incomplete sensory experience it provides, not in spite of it: I’d submit that action thrillers enhanced with the smell of burning flesh – or even the “napalm in the morning” made infamous by Apocalypse Now – would not generate tremendous box office revenues after long. There might be a limited market for those films in which audiences knowingly sign on to a potentially repulsive experience (e.g. the screenings of John Waters’ Polyester which came complete with “Odorama” scratch ‘n sniff cards for audience members), but overall this seems like an unlikely arena for the future development of olfactory art.

However, this doesn’t mean that the applications of synthetic scent design aren’t continuing to expand into new cultural arenas. This state-of-the-art technology is used, among other things, to provide olfactory “branding” that has a function similar to that of visualizing a corporate logo (e.g. the distinct scents used in luxury cars to give them another degree of differentiation from more affordable competition.) Elsewhere, novel technologies like the Olfactive Project’s oPhone aim to bring scent back into the realm of telecommunications, allowing for scent projection to heighten the emotional content of messages transmitted by more conventional (textual) means. The arts world of the 21st century should take these innovations as a challenge to make resonant new works incorporating aromas, and not allow these tools to simply become devices for social grooming and more effective product placement. Designers of luxury fragrances have understood for decades how scent can seduce others into believing in the idealized image of the wearer, a persuasive project that still seems to be waiting for a concerted critical response from the arts. Modern art has held up a mirror to the science of seduction many times before, with visual and audio montage works cutting up and reconfiguring the atoms of information in order to identify those areas where a stage-managed reality was being allowed to pass itself off as universal truth. The same can, and should, happen again with scent before the trail goes cold.

Works Cited:

1. N.E. McIndoo, “Smell and Taste and Their Applications.” The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 25, No. 6 (Dec., 1927), pp. 481-503.

2. Gordon M. Shepherd, “The Human Sense of Smell: Are We Better Than We Think?” PloS Biology, Vol. 2. No. 5 (2004), pp. 571-575.

3. Sally Banes, “Olfactory Performances.” TDR (1988-), Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), pp. 68-76.

4. Banes (2001.)

5. Brian Moeran, “Japanese Fragrance Descriptives and Gender Constructions: Preliminary Steps towards an Anthropology of Olfaction.”Etnofoor, Vol. 18, No. 1 (2005), pp. 97-123.

6. Catherine MacGregor, “Abject Speculation: Refiguring the Female Body in the Performance Work of Cosey Fanni Tutti.” Paper delivered at Performance Studies International 5, Aberystwyth, April 10 1999.