Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Smell With Your Guts: A Few Words From Kurkdjian + Opus VI Give-Away Preview

I interviewed Francis Kurkdjian a few weeks ago when he was in London to promote his new Oud, and at one point, our conversation turned to the unresolved issue of objectivity in perfume criticism. I thought some of you might find it interesting to read what he had to say. His responses reminded me a great deal of the answers Luca Turin gave Chandler Burr when he was asked similar questions (see The Emperor Of Scent); I'll leave it to you to decide if Monsieur Kurkdjian sheds any new light on the topic. Oh, and if he comes across as overly spiky below, blame the baldness of transcripts: I took his contrariness as evidence of a genuine attempt to engage with the dialogue.

P: What are the roles of subjectivity and objectivity in perfume appreciation? Is it possible to be objective?

FK: Why not? Why can't you be objective?

P: Well, because your response depends on your socio-cultural background, your experiences, your personal tastes...

FK: But that’s the same as for music or design. Perfume doesn’t differ from the other arts.

P: So at what level can you be objective?

FK: I think it’s really time for people to understand that perfume is the mirror of our days and our lives. No 5 was a reflection of the 20s, in the same way that Miss Dior was a reflection of the late 40s. We are so nostalgic about perfume nowadays. We say that now we have too many trends. But there were trends in the past too. There were many perfumes like Miss Dior at the time, there were many perfumes like No 5, for two reasons. The first one is that perfumers were looking at each other’s work. The second is that the number of raw materials was so limited that the chances of doing the same thing were much higher than they are now. We now have much more diversity. But we keep thinking that things were better before.

P: But if you were going to advise somebody to evaluate a perfume objectively, what would you say?

FK: ‘Objectively’ means: with your nose. With your guts.

P: ‘With your guts’ means ‘objectively’?

FK: Yes! You can like anything. You could like Jennifer Aniston’s perfume. I don’t care. Why not? What’s the problem with that? When you walk into someone’s house, you don’t see just masterpieces hanging on their walls. So when you walk into their bathroom, you can’t expect everyone to have just Chanel and Guerlain. They can have crap also, because everybody has good taste and bad taste.

P: But it sounds as though you’re saying that ‘personal taste’ is ‘objectivity’.

FK: Yes. It’s relative objectivity.

P: Relative?

FK: Yes, of course. It’s still objectivity. And to me, the debates in the coming years will be all about that. We have to put experts talking about perfume on one side, and we have to leave people to experience perfume on their own. People, on a global scale, are never wrong. Critics are wrong more often than the global audience. Because critics are narrow-minded. Always.


In other news... Amouage are just about to release Opus VI, the latest addition to their Library Collection, and I'm very pleased to announce that Persolaise.com will be hosting a give-away for not one, but three special bottles of the scent. Be sure to come back on Friday to enter the draw!



  1. For some reason, I find the above interplay very cute. Not to mention, the questions you asked are of great interest to me. Cute always comes first, then intellectual curiosity. This blog post's got it all!

  2. A little bit confising. As it sounds like "being objective to a perfume" means to trust your nose, be honest and dare to recognize what you are feeling, don't judge. But isn't it "subjective". Looks like the answer for the first question should be "Subjectivity is the only right way to enjoy and appreciate a scent."

    A bottle of Opus on Friday? Sounds good. :)

  3. I find the answers a bit confusing. For me guts has not much to do with objectivity.

    The question " at what level can you be objective " (when it comes to perfumes) is answered by "perfumes mirroring our days and lives" which is not really an answer. And the second answer to the question "advise somebody to evaluate a perfume objectively, what would you say" is .... "Objectively means: With your nose. With your guts." I do not think that guts have lots to do with objectivity.

  4. What I find interesting is the bathroom reference - we don't store our perfumes in the bathroom!

  5. I agree with AromaX on the interpretation and Bloody Frida on the bathroom storage issue! That is a scent crime for sure. : - )

    Also, FK's view (if I understood him rightly) that the public at large are the true arbiters of taste rather than the "critics", whoever they may be, was interesting.

  6. The debate about the critical perspective vs. that of the general public regarding art (including commodified art) has been raging for at least a few centuries and is one of the central questions of modernity. I don't think any one person has the answer.

    I do not really believe in objectivity. There are certainly formalist aesthetic schools that believe in objectivity: "I, the trained and expert critic can perceive this art X as it really is and evaluate it against the Pure Form of art." It's very Platonic. I don't believe that this is truly possible. I do believe art and our opinions of it are contextual. I also do believe there is a place for the critic. What is popular is not always the best; however, sometimes what is popular CAN be the best. Sometimes it might take a generation passing to see this. For example, critics of our day don't care for fruity florals or aquatic sport fragrances because they are overdone. I daresay 30 or 40 years from now perfumistas and critics will have greater appreciation for these genres as houses move on to new fare; there will be certain Ur-fruity florals and Ur-Aquatic sports fragrances that are greatly appreciated. I think we can already see this happening with some of the early aquatic fragrances of the 90s.

  7. Carrie, thank you. And I'm glad that the playful tone came across.

  8. AromaX, I don't want to put words in FK's mouth, but I suspect that what he may have been trying to get at is that 'personal objectivity' is the only real objectivity we can attain.

    And yes, be sure to come back on Friday ;-)

  9. Andy, once again, I'm wary of speaking for FK, but I doubt he reads this blog, so as he's unlikely to leave a comment, I'll try to explain my understanding of what he meant.

    I think the reason he answered my question by talking about past trends is that he considers this to tie in with a certain form of objectivity: if we view perfumes as socio-cultural artefacts, then this makes it slightly easier to separate our assessment of them from our personal views.

    I should also re-iterate that the tone of my conversation with him was perfectly pleasant at all times. I do think he was trying to get to grips with the issue at hand.

    By the way: what would be your answer to the objectivity/subjectivity question?

  10. Frida... I think a lot of people do, you know.

  11. Vanessa, yes, that is an interesting point. Certainly, the vast majority of scents we currently consider to be classics were huge hits when they were first released.

  12. Susan, thanks very much for writing such a detailed comment, and I take your point about future critics' views on aquatics et al.

    Personally, I think we need to move away from the idea that subjectivity is a dirty word. It is impossible for any critic to be wholly objective. It should be acceptable - perhaps even preferable - for a critic to adopt a position of educated, contextualised subjectivity.

  13. I won't weigh in on the objectivity/subjectivity debate because it makes my brain hurt but I will say that I do really like that he says that it doesn't matter what you like, you can like crap too. This is a very refreshing stance from someone of Kurkdijan's stature!

    Thank you for posting this very interesting exchange!

  14. Thank you, this was a very interesting dialogue, but I have to admit that the first question, the one you asked, was almost not answered (if you ask me, that is). Interesting take on a word objectively, too. But it's a nice topic to raise and a good dialogue to have!

  15. Candy Perfume Boy, thanks for writing. Yes, he does say people can like rubbish, but notice he does still say it's rubbish!

  16. aka Warum, thank you. I'm sure this is a debate that could go on for quite some time.

  17. Can we define "objectivity" as "subjectivity in context"? (I think that was the point you were making, Persolaise.) When I was younger, I liked Mozart. Many years later I appreciate Penderecki. Once wanted only pastoral art of Dahlhart Windberg in my home; now my walls are almost entirely covered by Kandinsky. At one time in my life I enjoyed floral fragrances almost exclusively and now, much wiser (?) am in love with rich orientals most of the time. The difference in all the above? Time, experience, exposure, maturity, greater choices, wisdom, education, and yes, reading all the "objective" opinions of perfume reviewers, critics,bloggers, et al. Notwithstanding all the "expert" opinions about fragrance, I'm going to wear (and buy) what I like / suits the occasion. Based on all the above, I believe I can be objective when it comes to evaluating a fragrance, regardless of whether it appeals to me or not. Perhaps we should all be more Orwellian in judging fragrance, remembering that "all perfumes are equal, some are just more equal than others."

  18. Leslie Ann, thanks for your detailed comment. You'll have seen, of course, that Kurkdjian also says we should wear whatever we like... indeed he says that we should *like* whatever we wish to like, regardless of whether it's 'rubbish'... which brings us back to the question of how we separate personal judgements from whether something is a 'good' perfume/film/painting etc.

    I suspect this topic could run on and on.

  19. Thanks for this. Fascinating and a lot of fun! What I took from him (rightly or wrongly) was when trying a fragrance don't to be prejudiced regarding brand/perfume type and don't over intellectualise it, just feel your reaction in your "guts". Totally agree with this and I do think people on a global scale do end up being "right" but I think it often takes time for the cream to rise to the top, as it were.

    Very excited about the draw!

  20. Tara, I think it would certainly be possible to interpret his words in that way. Personally, I don't think that 'long term mass tastes' can always be taken as a measure of quality, but I'm sure that in some instances, they can.

    You haven't got long to wait till the draw!

  21. So funny. I really enjoyed this exchange. On one hand he is so equitable with his views on perfume as art and we should all be free to like what we like. Then he slips (Freudian?) later on and admits that some people have good taste and some have bad. Was that contradictory to anyone but me?
    Still, I'd like to listen to him talk some more, he seems pretty interesting...and feisty.

  22. Sujaan, I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. Fingers crossed, I should be able to post more of Mr K's thoughts next week.

    I know exactly what you mean by the apparent contradiction... but then, have you ever loved a song or a movie which you've known is 'rubbish'?

  23. Absolutely! I guess my Millionaire Matchmaker addiction explores my taste in rubbish! Lol

  24. Sujaan, there's some rubbish I'm quite happy to enjoy...

  25. The part about Jennifer Aniston makes me laugh and laugh. I want to invite this guy to a dinner party!

  26. Elisa, I should think he'd be great company!


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