Tag Archives: Senses

The Exclusion of Smell

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

One of the foundations of art is direct pleasure. We are stirred by the elegant brushstroke, the well-crafted verse, the graceful dance, the sloping rooftop, the modulation from one key to another. Whatever utility the art object may serve, it is valued as a source of experiential gratification. Yet for all of its immediacy, art is not sensation alone. Pleasure without substance is too amorphous to stimulate deeper contemplation. Sensory stimuli must form a pathway to the mind.

Direct pleasure plus intellectual engagement equals art. Versions of this formulation appear in philosophical discourses since the days of Plato and Aristotle. A sense of beauty is joined with a sense of order: balance, pattern, development, climax. These ground rules have taken some aestheticians into areas not ordinarily recognized as art per se, such as sports and cooking. What baseball, recipes, oil paintings, ballet, symphonies, and statues share is a convergence of pleasure and form.

Because the creative impulse has so many outlets, the philosophy of art tends to err on the side of inclusion. Art generally refers to artifacts (e.g., paintings, decorated objects, tattoos) and performances (e.g., dance, music, drama)—categories broad enough to accept marginal cases. But there are limits, most notably the exclusion of smell.

Human beings are capable of distinguishing thousands of different odor molecules. The location of the olfactory bulb in the brain’s limbic system—the seat of emotions and memories—enables smells to call up instant and powerful associations. The proliferation of perfumes and air fresheners suggests a level of discernment on par with visual and auditory judgment. Yet, despite its personal importance and nuance, there is a longstanding philosophical prejudice against the “lower sense.” The reason for this is that smell resists systematic organization.

In contrast to the relationship between higher and lower musical pitches, lighter and darker paint tones, and rising and falling action, smells do not lend themselves to rational arrangement. They do not have names like the colors of the rainbow or the notes on a scale. They are always identified with the things from which they emanate (cheese, gasoline, tar, shampoo, wet socks, etc.). They are received in their entirety at the moment of perception. Thus, while they may prompt direct pleasure and strong connotations, they lack order. We will never sniff a “smell-sonata,” for, as Monroe Beardsley explains, “How would you begin to look for systematic, repeatable, regular combinations that would be harmonious and enjoyable as complexes?”

This is not to belittle our capacity for smell. The forty thousand olfactory receptors are crucial to our lives and can be a source of great satisfaction. But they foster an experience too pure to be art.

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