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Between art theory and socio-cultural practice – functions of the je ne sais quoi and other categories of elusive knowledge in the siècle classique

Subproject by Thordis Laackman

The subproject focuses on aesthetic categories that are crucial in the Grand Siècle (seventeenth-century France) to shaping the social practices of a predominantly aristocratic elite and that function as indicators of a moral and cultural ideal. In addition to the specific category of the je ne sais quoi, these are, for example, the categories of urbanité, honnêteté, délicatesse or grâce.

The command of an elitist art of behavior based on these categories aims at the perfection of an aestheticized social practice and unfolds a distinguishing force that determines an individual’s social existence and legitimates his belonging to the cultural upper class. However, the knowledge concerning these categories reveals itself to be elusive, and although it may be intuitively understood, it precludes terminological definition. Among others, we will look at the culture transfer from 16th-century Italy to 17th-century France and trace back the functional change of that knowledge in aesthetic categories. For these purposes, evidence of a codified practice of emulation and writings on art and behavioural theory will be examined.