From 2006 to 2010, writer Chandler Burr served as the New York Times’ first (and only) perfume critic. He famously awarded four stars and the rating of “excellent” to Britney Spears’s Midnight Fantasy, calling it “the perfect olfactory incarnation of Spears (on the screen, not behind the wheel of a car).” Now he is the author of the new book Dior: The Perfumes, which incorporates Burr’s critique with vintage images of Dior perfume iconography. Here, he talks to the Cut about why fragrance and art is a lie, and why he wants to deliver a fuck-you to the fragrance industry. Read his interview below and click through the slideshow for vintage images of Dior in his atelier and more from the book.
You’re the author of a new book about Dior perfumes, so it’s a bit surprising that you’re known for hating perfume marketing copy.
Dior approached my agent and I initially turned the project down because I assumed what they wanted was marketing copy. I said, “I’m absolutely not interested in this at all.” And my agent called me back laughing and said, “They loved the fact you turned it down. What they want is independent voice and someone who is not part of Dior. They want you contextualize Dior’s work in scent art within the context of art history.”
Dior said, “We’re not asking you to write about anything you don’t like, that is your freedom.” For example, I didn’t want to write about Higher Energy, a very commercial perfume, which they commissioned. We went through to choose which ones to write about and there are also three essays on Dior’s life, the role of gardens in his life, and on perfume, in general.
What makes perfume an art?
All art must lie by definition, but in the best possible sense. All art must be artificial because the artist is seeking to manipulate the viewer or listener. For example, when you read a novel, it’s something that is utterly false. It’s made-up constructions invented by the authors; every word in them is a lie. As Picasso said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.”
So where does the truth lie in perfume?
There is a truth that the artist has. That truth, that vision, is what he or she seeks to convey to the audience. The degree to which the lie convinces you, forces you to see the world from their perspective. The more the work of art manipulates you, the better it is.
When did you realize that perfume was an art?
While waiting for my Eurostar to London in the Gare du Nord in Paris, I met this guy, who was a biophysicist and genius on perfume. We had a long conversation about a scientific theory and I started writing a book about him. It was only about two to three months in that I realized it was going to be a book about perfume. His love of perfume informed his scientific work in every single way.
David Remnick got the book from my agent and asked me to write a piece about the creation of a perfume. I said I didn’t want to do it because I wasn’t a perfumer. I also dislike the fashion industry intensely. There is no link between fashion and perfume.
You don’t think there is a link between fashion and perfume? That is a bold statement coming from the author of a book about Dior.
It’s a modern anomaly that we associate fashion with perfume. Scents have always been made by perfumers. For example, it was always done by Guerlain with a perfumer. It would never have occurred to [Guerlain] in a million years to make dresses.
You hate perfume marketing copy, but let’s say you were creating your own perfume: How would you market it?
Here’s the problem, you have a serious treatment of films, including popular ones. But nobody applies serious language or thought or conceits to perfume. In commercial marketing, the perfume will be described as saying, for example, notes of caramel. No one has an essence of caramel; it doesn’t exist. Or it will say notes of moon rock or of ammonium thioglycolic. And my answer to that is, “Fuck you, if you are going to be serious about that!” But they are not serious about that! And no one is.
But let’s put this as an analogy. There’s a wonderful painter named Ed Ruscha. He paints, the gallerist then exhibits it in a commercial space. He shows it to the critics and the public and the critics write about it or collectors come look at it and purchase it. If I ever do create or direct a scent, I would market it by talking about the artist. Frédéric Malle conceived and presents his collection this way, and it’s by a mile the most legitimate and interesting–to my mind–way to do it. I would be the gallerist, but I would talk about the work itself not in terms of me or the perfumer. I would talk about it in terms of its aesthetic effect. I would create it as something serious, which is what it should be treated as.
But how would you understand what a scent smells like without describing the notes?
Using notes is an incredibly impoverished way of “understanding what a scent smells like.” It is the equivalent of understanding a painting by…
By saying it has lots of reds and blues?
Exactly. Or what a musical work sounds like by saying “D minor.” It doesn’t tell you anything about the work. Thom Yorke can write in D minor. And so can Beethoven. And you will have two completely different works of art.
This interview has been condensed and edited.