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November 16, 2019 / Congau

The Musical Keys of Art

“Je ne sais quoi” is English. It’s a technical term indicating that something has “an indefinable quality that makes something distinctive or attractive” (Wictionary).  When you don’t know what to say about something because its nature somehow eludes you, but you still feel it has a very specific quality, you may employ those French words. It plainly means “I don’t know what” but saying it in a foreign language makes it sound important instead of exposing your ignorance.

But there is a chance that you are not all that ignorant, for certain things simply escape the grasp of ordinary spoken language. It may be expressed in the language of art only and then it just can’t be translated into plain prose. Yet there is something to it and you do somehow understand it, but only in its original artistic language. Therefore you say in English: Je ne sais quoi.

There must definitely be something there, because if there wasn’t, it would be bad art or just trash. But who is to tell which is which? Well, it’s hard to tell since the telling must be done in the spoken language or in another language that we have in common. Now, if art were just a subjective language, it would be impossible, but that can’t be the case since we are indeed able to enjoy what another person has created. What then is the common language of art? What is its grammar, so to speak?

In music there are keys; a certain necessary conformity of tones that cannot be violated lest the musical ear will be offended. Other arts may also have their subtle keys that constitute a necessary structure. Just anything won’t work, but when something works you know it has hit the right key, the universal harmony of that art, the Je ne sais quoi.

Maybe you know what it is after all…

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