What Can the Experience of Smell Tell Us About Art?

The Smeller 2.0 / Osmodrama by Wolfgang Georgsdorf (Source: Wikimedia)

Imagine you are visiting a modern art exhibition. The exhibition leads you through several rooms with various pieces in the installation. Next, there’s a corner with a large fatty smudge on the wall in one of the rooms. Is this art, or should it be cleaned?

This question is far from rhetorical. In the 1980s, a cleaner in Germany had accidentally destroyed a piece in the exhibition of the artist Joseph Beuys. The work simply constituted a large pile of butter smeared along the edges and corners of a room. This incident soon gained notoriety and has even turned into an idiom in Germany: “Is this art, or can it be thrown away?” (“Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg?”)

There’s frequently a gap between the developments in modern art and the public perception of art. That gap seems to have widened, especially since the 1960s. It remains unclear what exactly art is, and in that context, what it means to experience something as art.

This divergence between art production and art perception links to the very heart of what makes some works… art: the transgression of expectation and institutional or social boundaries, the ambiguity of meaning, and, perhaps most importantly, a specific kind of engagement of the observer with a piece of work as art.

What does such engagement entail? For that answer, let’s turn to… olfactory experience!

Smells usually are not what we think of when we talk about the profound nature of art. But the reasons behind this neglect of scent in art discourse reveals more about our lack of cognitive engagement with the senses than the nature of art itself.

What makes scents such an unlikely subject of art discourse?

Perhaps you are thinking of perfume in response to my question. Some perfumes have achieved widespread iconic status in modern culture — say, Chanel №5 and CK One. Perfumes constitute cultural artifacts (See also:by Lizzie Ostrom. She also goes by the phenomenal moniker… Odette Toilette.) Yet opinions remain divided on whether perfumes should be considered “art” or “design.”

Smell experiences provide a provocative challenge to our intuitions about art. They have a reputation of being a matter of taste only. You either like an odor or you don’t. In contrast, many art scholars and philosophers think of art as cognitively sophisticated and removed from mere affect and emotional response. For example, we assume that art must have content. In one way or another, it should “say something” to the observer by conveying some kind of message (“What does it ?”). And should that message not carry some intention? Besides, how do you display or preserve odors in an institutional art setting like a museum, exhibition, or performance?

A 2020 book by Larry Shiner,, tackled all these questions. It answers the question of whether smell can be art in the affirmative. Scented materials can carry meanings (through structural composition, say their temporal order, and contextual controls, like cross-modal cues violating and fulfilling expectations). Smell materials can be adapted to work within an institutional setting (like an opera). Moreover, artists can target and shape an observer’s conscious awareness with sensory play and the physically experienced presence of olfactory cues. The book, frankly, made me rethink my understanding of art.

Have you ever heard of ? (Or, maybe more importantly, have you smelled it?)

Examples of olfactory art

Osmodrama, or , is an enormous construction by the German artist Wolfgang Georgsdorf. It boasts 64 tubes (with some intricate wiring and fans) that fill and empty a room almost instantly with an odor — or two or three — in whatever length and series intended.

Compare the experience of with a piece of music where notes appear in various forms of succession involving their combination or separation. Odors sometimes appear in , meaning they enter separately and detached from their predecessors and successors. Or they sometimes subtly blend into another so that your conscious awareness may shift from the olfactory presence of a green-earthy smell such as grass to the green-fruity scent of apple. It is as if you are walking on a field, and your spotlight of attention gets intentionally directed to various scenery elements. In a way, such an experience resembles the intended effects of music like Smetana’s The Moldau, a composition following the river Moldau through the rhythms and variations of themes. (How’s that for smell communicating conceptual content via art!)

is not an outlier.

Anicka Yi is a South Korean, New York-based artist who uses the smell of materials and input from the sciences (especially biochemistry) to express abstract ideas. Her exhibition, “ You Can Call Me F,” employs the diverse sensory dimensions that materials such as food and bacteria afford — including their odor.

Another olfactory mastermind is the French, New York-based perfumer Christophe Laudamiel. You may have smelled some of his commercial creations (like Polo Blue). Laudamiel also does olfactory art. In 2004, he composed . He also designed olfactory art, such as his “Scent Squares.”

There are numerous examples demonstrating the aesthetic use of smell, ranging from design (like perfume) to meditation ( Kōdō, a Japanese practice with incense). Shiner shows the manifold appearance of smell in literature (Süskind’s), opera, cinema ( Smell-O-Vision), and installations of materials in museums or exhibitions.

What’s it like? The experience of olfactory art

More than mentioning such creative institutional displays, let me describe what happens in your mind with the experience of olfactory artworks. While writing my own book on the sense and science of smell (), I had the fortune of experiencing one of Laudamiel’s olfactory presentations at a workshop at Columbia University in 2017 (here’s a recording). At some point, Laudamiel handed out some smelling strips to the audience. The audience murmured. It smelled fatty, sweet, organic… was it pleasant or unpleasant? Hard to tell. It was ambiguous. There was a distinct smell… yet with a somewhat mysterious character for the mind to grasp. Then he showed an image of warm milk. Suddenly, you smelled warm milk. (How could you have not smelled it before?) Shortly after, he changed the image to ham. Just as abrupt, the sensory expression of milk in your mind was gone — and the odor of the same smelling strip (still in your hands) now transformed, quite clearly in your mind, to ham.

Doesn’t that just prove odor experience is merely a subjective whim?

On the contrary, or Laudamiel would not have been able to direct your mental image so skillfully to what he wanted you to perceive. (How’s that for intention in art theory!) Indeed, Laudamiel later told me that he also does “mental walks” with more complex compositions:

“One image then is a library with very dark wooden beams and red velvet. Here, you smell something spicy, the texture of the velvet, and all this. Then I show another picture with bookshelves. The wood is very sleek, very beige, clear woods, simple shades. All of a sudden, you don’t ‘see’ the spiciness anymore. It’s crazy. All of a sudden, you can smell the old paper inside the books.” (Laudamiel in an interview, quoted in ).

“Ok,” you may have begun to wonder by now. “Fair enough, some people use smells in art contexts. Perhaps you may describe and analyze it as art. But I am still not sure to experience this as art.”

It seems impossible to understand olfactory art without a direct encounter, right?

The embodied nature of art and its experience

This observation points us to the essence of aesthetics: Art requires direct experience.

Many forms of art involve direct sensory expressions of an idea. So you that idea instead of merely about it (as the Swedish philosopher Elisabeth Schellekens suggested). Indeed, this insight applies to all sorts of art: visual (like paintings), auditory (like opera), and — as we saw — also olfactory artworks.

Perhaps here we also find the roots of the growing divergence between professional art development and the experience of art in its public perception.

The institutional practice of art discourse often addresses artworks as disembodied representations: stripped of bodily perspective and experience.

But many artists conceptualize their work in light of their own and the observer’s bodily perspective. (See also: by Pamela Smith).

Just think of the various ways in which artists play with proportions and angles in gigantic sculptures and memorials, or Jackson Pollock’s physical style of painting, Daniel Barenboim’s style of conducting symphonies, Pina Bausch’s choreography… examples are legend.

Art in all its form is performative. It provokes apprehension through its intentional use of stimulation as embodied cognition. Thinking about aesthetics in parallel with the deeply embodied nature of smell brought this feature of art to my attention.

Artwork without the body is just talk.

But art experience is walking the walk.

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