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Word of the Day: kunstonderwijs (art education)

KUNST (art) and ONDERWIJS (education), two words that are mysteriously and weirdly joined in wedlock. I am reminded of this bond because two friends of mine who have dedicated their lives to art education, got married today. Like the worlds of KUNST and ONDERWIJS they are no longer in their salad days. Getting married when you’re WIJZER (wiser) makes the event even more meaningful.

onderwijs kunst

Patty, the BRUID (bride), gives guidance to an organisation for KUNSTONDERWIJS, or as it is often called ‘cultuureducatie’ in Rijswijk, Voorburg and Leidschendam. The organisation is called Trias. For more information look here. They have inspiring courses for all ages.

And the BRUIDEGOM (groom) is called Dirk. Dirk looks back on a long career in ONDERWIJS and KUNST. Yes, in that order. In the last couple of years he has written two beautifully designed and illustrated books on KUNSTONDERWIJS en CULTUUREDUCATIE. Both books were published by Lemniscaat. For more information click here.

Dirk and Patty have decided to make their liaison more formal in the eyes of society. And we wish them a happy and creative marriage. Hopefully harmonious foremost.

KUNST and ONDERWIJS have a weird kind of relationship: creative yes, but harmonious? No, far from that. KUNST is at heart anarchistic, whereas ONDERWIJS cannot function without strict structure and rules. Both fields should have continuous relational therapy because they do not understand each other at all. They have a love-hate relationship. Absolutely symbiotic. They cannot live together and they cannot do without each other. They need each other.

In this relational therapy the therapist asks the partners to outline and define their natures, but every time they fail. The reason why they fail is because the times they are a-changin’ as an American troubadour used to sing today exactly fifty years ago. The song was recorded in 1963.

Talking about 1963. What was KUNST in those days? And ONDERWIJS? Art was breaking its ties with traditions of fine art in a revolutionary way. Remember pop art and the discussions around this genre which included material from popular culture such as advertising, news, etc. And remember education in those days? Right…

KUNST and ONDERWIJS are two words that are defy definitions. How hard we try, every time definitions turn out to be inadequate. This can lead to serious misunderstandings.

As I have learned over the last couple of months that I have been writing on Dutch words, we can learn an awful lot about the meaning and the nature of words by looking at their history.

Let’s start with ONDERWIJS. This word has nothing to do with the adjective WIJS (wise) which stems from a word ‘wisa’ which is related to ‘weten’ (knowing). So ONDERWIJS does not originally mean ‘less than wise’. ONDERWIJS comes from the verb ONDERWIJZEN which goes back to the verb WIJZEN. In Old Dutch wīsen could mean ‘point’, ‘show’, ‘announce’, ‘judge’ and even ‘teach’. Old English also had ‘wīsian’. We can still recognise this meaning in the phrase VONNIS WIJZEN (pass sentence). A verb very similar in meaning, age and form is ONDERRICHTEN (teach) in which the verb RICHTEN can mean ‘give direction’ or ‘administer justice’.

And then we call on KUNST (art) to explain itself. Old Dutch KUNST meant ‘wijsheid’ (wisdom) or ‘bekwaamheid’ (competence). We’re talking eleventh century here. KUNST was clearly related to ‘kennen’ (know) and ‘kunnen’ (be able, can). KUNST was KENNIS (knowledge) and KUNDE (skill). In the phrase ‘de zwarte kunsten’ (magic) we can still trace these meanings. So KUNST was the product of someone’s skills and knowledge. The more skillful a person was and the more knowledge he possessed the better he was as a KUNSTENAAR (artist). A lousy artist was and is only good at KUNSTJES (knacks or tricks).

So a medieval artist was both a skilful creator and maker of things, a scholar and a scientist. Over time the word KUNST was limited to FRAAIE or SCHONE KUNSTEN (fine arts). Other KUNSTEN were called KUNDE, AMBACHT (craft) and WETENSCHAP (science).

Ever since the Romantic period at the beginning of the nineteenth century the members of this creative family have led separated lives. ONDERWIJS is in a world of its own too.

And that is why, ladies and gentlemen, KUNST and ONDERWIJS have such a troubled relationship. The lesson we learn from the history of these words then is simple: let’s turn medieval again. Let’s take the words seriously and learn that we should integrate the various shades of meaning into one world. The world in which people can develop their talents and skills and wisdom.