Sunday, January 16, 2011
Trust Me - I Know What's Good For You
I suppose one of the purposes of such lists is precisely to arrive at this sort of objectivity: the unwritten principle seems to be that if enough people mention a certain scent, it must be good. On this premise, one could conclude that Ropion's Portrait Of A Lady and Duchaufour's Traversée Du Bosphore are both highly laudable, but it doesn't take a great deal of analysis to detect several flaws in such a strategy. And besides, it fails to bring us any closer to identifying the actual features that make a "good" perfume good.
I suspect most people for whom scent is a relatively serious business are happy to accept that it is possible to make the following statement: "I think fragrance X is good, but I just happen not to like it very much." In other words, they consider it possible to make an objective judgement that is distinct from personal preferences. This may sound impressively rational and intellectual, but I'd argue that all so-called objective criteria ultimately have to give way to the quirks of subjectivity.
Take tenacity, for example, which is frequently cited as an important characteristic of a 'good' fragrance. We all know what the word means in relation to a perfume, but who's to decide what is the right 'amount' of tenacity (if such an attribute can be measured in terms of amounts)? You may say it all depends on the overall nature of the scent, and of course you'd be right, but then who's to decide what is the right level of tenacity for a fresh cologne as opposed to a soft floral or a heavy oriental? Several scents that are considered too fleeting by some are judged by others to make their exit at just the right moment.
Another attribute of a 'good' perfume is what we might call seamlessness: a smooth progression from one moment to the next, with no jarring 'gaps' or awkward diversions. Again, this sounds eminently sensible when expressed in such dispassionate terms, but surely a great deal of subjectivity is involved here too. Perhaps one person will perceive a particular transition from, say, bergamot to lavender as graceful, whereas another might see it as clumsy. A perfume that follows a slightly less orthodox trajectory might be considered a failure by one wearer or a brave innovation by another.
Subjectivity also raises its head in all the other criteria used to judge a perfume: volume, diffusiveness, complexity, even originality. To greater or lesser degrees, all these are tempered by the different experiences and perceptions that each individual brings to a fragrance.
Every ten years, Sight & Sound - one of the world's most highly respected movie magazines - invites critics and directors to provide a list of their top 10 films of all time. The results are then collated to produce a final, overall list. (In case you're wondering, Citizen Kane has been at the top since 1962; the next grand survey is due in 2012.)
What's interesting about this exercise is not that certain films appear in individual lists a sufficient number of times to earn a place on the final tally. What's interesting is that when you look at each critic's or director's personal choices, you see a tremendous variation in their preferences and what they consider to be praiseworthy movies. (Equally interesting is a comparison between the overall Top 10 as voted by critics and the Top 10 as voted by directors: it shows quite clearly that the people who make movies and the people who critique them don't necessarily agree about what constitutes greatness.)
This open-mindedness must also be permitted to apply to perfume. I am not for one moment suggesting that all opinions should be granted equal weight, regardless of how vapid they are. "Perfume Z is rubbish because it's rosy and I can't stand rose," doesn't really get us anywhere. I absolutely believe that anyone who would like their fragrance appraisals to be taken seriously must make an effort to put aside - as much as possible - overly personal views on mere likes and dislikes. But the whimsical human element can never be erased completely, nor should it be. We need different conversations about perfume in just the same way that we need different perfumes. Indeed, we probably need the conversations more than we need a limiting, reductive sense of good and bad, because it's the conversations that will keep pushing the art into areas and forms that we can't even begin to imagine - or judge - at this moment in time.