Clarifying the arguments: Perfume, Design and Olfactory Art

Larry Shiner, a philosopher in the field of aesthetics, published a must-read academic treatise on piece by Larry Shiner on the confusing but ever-relevant subject of perfumes & art (Shiner 2015).

The paper was previously presented at the symposium”Scent, Science and Aesthetics. Understanding Smell and Anosmia” organized by Marta Tafalla in Barcelona.  A documentation of Shiner’s talk is available on the internet.

Claims that perfumes are art have been made before, but a recent art museum exhibit of a dozen perfumes under the title ‘The Art of Scent’ has raised the issue with a new insistence, although with an absence of theoretical justification. Part 1 of the paper develops an aesthetic case for perfume as an art form by answering Beardsley’s and Scruton’s arguments against odours (and implicitly perfumes) as the basis for aesthetic objects and works of art. Part 1 concludes that perfumes can in fact manifest the required structure, temporality, symbolism and expressivity for art status. Part 2, on the other hand, develops a contextualist case against perfumes as works of fine art by analyzing a typical contemporary art practice involving a perfume and arguing that, by contrast, typical perfumery practices lack crucial elements required to make perfume an art form and that perfume should be considered one of the design arts. Part 3, instead of trying to reconcile the impasse between the conclusions of Parts 1 and 2 with a theory of the fine arts that combines aesthetic and contextual elements, instead chooses to follow Dominic Lopes’ proposal that in resolving claims to art status we pursue analogies and ‘paths’ offered by the established individual arts. Using music as an example of a long established art form and the art quilt as an example of a recently established art, I suggest what it might take for ‘art perfumes’, or more accurately, ‘art scents’, to emerge and become justifiably included among the fine arts.

Prior to this Shiner discussed and reflected on the remarkable increase in the number of artworks that foreground scents and odors during recent years in another article (Shiner 2007!). For our brief take on the matter, see The Art of Scent & The Scent of Art.)


Shiner, L., & Kriskovets, Y. (2007). The Aesthetics of Smelly Art. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65(3), 273–286.

Shiner, L. (2015). Art Scents: Perfume, Design and Olfactory Art. The British Journal of Aesthetics, ayv017.