I was recently reading an article titled “The Scent of the Nile”, originally published in the New Yorker by Chandler Burr. The following excerpt (referring to Jean-Claude Ellena) quotes part of that article:
“(...)Even though Ellena’s perfumes often evoke the smells of nature, he believes that scents containing only natural materials are not, fundamentally, perfumes. The art of perfumery, Ellena believes, is the art of gracefully combining different chemicals, some natural, some synthetic. The first perfume synthetics were created in the nineteenth century.(...).”
I couldn’t help but find myself having an immediately negative reaction to this statement. Surely this can’t be right? What are the implications of this statement? That natural perfumery is not perfumery at all? That someone who composes all natural scents is not actually a perfumer? That whether creative expression can or cannot be considered as art depends on the medium used? I just couldn’t accept this... I just couldn’t validate this statement. Burr mentions that the first perfume synthetics were created in the nineteenth century; I would like to draw a parallel to express my feelings about this issue. Before the 15th century, painters worked mostly with egg paints, otherwise known as tempera. However, in the 15th century there was a revolution: European painters suddenly started using oil paints, popularizing the medium and changing the face of art as we know it. Suddenly hues that were never seen on a painting before materialized. Textures became so realistic you could immediately tell whether you were looking at velvet or silk. Candlelight reflected differently on silver than it did on crystal. Pearls shone softly. The eye saw in the painting, what it saw in real life. A whole new world was opened up for painters worldwide. You see, egg paints pose numerous limitations: it is hard, or nigh impossible to play with the elements of darkness and light when painting with tempera. There is no way to render light of different intensities. Painting different hues takes not only incredible skill, but these almost never appear realistic. Same with water – there is no way to paint water that appears natural with egg, and it is incredibly difficult to show objects submerged under water or behind a gossamer veil, because egg does not lend itself to see-through expression. Still, despite these limitations, wonderful works of art were created with just egg paints: simply being confronted with the skill of master visual hagiographers who managed to paint the legs of John the Baptist submerged in the river despite the aforementioned difficulties, is enough to bring tears of awe to one’s eyes. And despite the fact that painters can indeed do so many more different things with oil, egg painting is not a lost art. Just like natural perfumery, it is a craft that is not as conspicuous as oil painting, however, it is still very much alive. It takes many painstaking years of studious, extremely disciplined apprenticeship to become a master visual hagiographer today. Even though these artists are limited not only by their medium of choice, but also by the techniques that identify this art form, they still manage to tell their own story, express their own creativity and impregnate each individual piece with their signature. It is a mysterious form of art: the more you know about it, the more you can appreciate it.
I guess what I am trying to say is this: You cannot judge art by the medium used: Whether the medium is marble, steel, or scrapheap salvage, the result is still art, and the creator a sculptor.