When Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, UNESCO Artist for Peace and long-time supporter of Ahimsa, was asked to design a symbol for the A.R.M initiative—the Ahimsa Renaissance Movement—she turned to Kanji, the adopted Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system. These characters are logographs, written symbols representing entire words or concepts; and for a new project built on tried and tested foundations, “Renaissance,” was the obvious concept to address. In Japanese calligraphy the idea is formed in almost exactly the same way as it is in French and English: the two characters in Setsuko’s calligraphy respectively mean “again” and “birth,” two separate symbols. In the 3,000 years of history since the character was invented, this one, the Japanese version, has not changed. It is one of the old kanji, and represents a quality that stands the test of time. But there is more to it.
“I chose it because it seems to me like something moving… harmoniously moving letters. It is exactly what the Ahimsa Foundation would like to look for: harmony with everything, between nature, human beings, spirit and different religions… and the literal meaning of ‘renaissance.’”
Setsuko is a familiar face to anyone who knows Ahimsa—a regular attendee at the Ahimsa Forum, taking the speaker’s role from time to time to emphasise the importance of heart, spirit and a certain quality of awareness in all that we do. And it is this awareness that she hopes to contribute to A.R.M’s big push to turn Ahimsa’s tradition of inspiring discussion into something concrete, fixing and defending the role of art and spirit in the transition towards the practical.
She references Oscar Wilde’s definition of art in De Profundis (1897)
Truth in art is not any correspondence between the essential idea and the accidental existence; it is not the resemblance of shape to shadow, or of the form mirrored in the crystal to the form itself; it is no echo coming from a hollow hill… Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit.
“I really think this definition is important,” Setsuko continues. “Really, art is a meditation. I would like art to return to that origin, the signification of art.”
What does this mean in practical terms?
“Today, lots of people don’t see any more. At museums, they listen to explanations, like at a zoo, creating an intellectual understanding of what they’re looking at. But it is more important to feel with your senses, to look at art and to receive something less intellectual. It requires very, very difficult training to be able to do that: it’s hard to appreciate things in that sensual way.
Every masterpiece casts a shadow, has a vibration. But people are far from nature, they don’t receive anything. Awareness of that vibration is faded. Instead, they satisfy themselves with the meaning of art, but they don’t fully experience it. It is a difficult matter because the explanation can be beautiful, even if sometimes it means nothing. With technology, images of art are shared and shown, and we keep the beauty, but not the vibration. And then for many, it becomes the same thing: if you always look at images in books, or through the internet, you don’t realise the difference. It’s a big problem of the technological world, that inability to see the difference any more.
So: to have certain awareness, to have the ability to see things in this deeper, quieter way, is very important. And if I can do something about that, that is what I would like to contribute to A.R.M.”
The challenge, of course, will be to take this way and depth of feeling that we would normally apply to art appreciation and creation, and address it to the task of how to solve the health problems, and the causes of the health problems, that affect the poorest people in the world.
“This is something special about Ahimsa. There are so many movements about health, physical health, but it is very rare to combine this with consideration of spirit, mind and art. To find an organization that takes this view… it’s quite unique. And that is a why I am so happy to be in it: it is a vision I am familiar with. In the Orient we never focus only on one point: even considering the body itself, the foot has a relation to the head, to the nerves, the heart, everything. We don’t separate them, it’s the vision of all connected, it’s a very profoundly rooted worldview. The Ahimsa foundation, with its focus on health beyond just physical health, which acknowledges the importance of the spiritual, attracts me a lot.”
“Take the question of poverty. Of course, materially, certain countries or regions or people are very poor, they cannot eat: that is a simple problem where we should help, with a simple answer. But poverty of spirit is more complicated. Why is it, when you go to slums in the Philippines, for example, that you find children giggling? Of course, they ask for food and money, but it seems to me in some way they possess an incredible health. In Japan, there is a big problem in the fact that a lot of children don’t play anymore, they spend all their time in computer games… a child who doesn’t know how to do anything with his hands, by himself: that sort of child is really poor.”
Another of Setsuko’s interests is so-called “natural care,” and the holistic view of therapeutic and preventive medicine that will be a focus of A.R.M’s first gatherings. In this respect at least, maybe technology is a blessing:
“Industrial power may not want to accept natural care, but I notice that the internet means there is a lot more information on this available today, much more than before. And it’s a good tendency. Health is everything, all parts of the person and their life, from top to bottom. With COVID-19, we’ve all had a lot of time at home to think about things and recalibrate what’s important, and it’s made me aware of so many positive things. How simple life is beautiful. To have enough time to think about just small things… it’s such a wonderful way to spend time. And it has been a very important moment for me… I live in the mountains, and just to see and to be in the forest, surrounded by the beauty of nature… it’s the most deluxe way of living today.”
In this appeal to a broader, more holistic view of health, perhaps it is another of Wilde’s definitions of art, in The Soul of man under socialism (1891), which comes to mind. Wilde was talking about art, but perhaps as A.R.M moves forward, the world grinds into some sort of life post-COVID and the discussions begin again, his is a view that we should apply more widely:
If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play. And the more completely he can suppress his own silly views, his own foolish prejudices, his own absurd ideas of what Art should be, or should not be, the more likely he is to understand and appreciate the work of art in question.
The temperament to which Art appeals … is the temperament of receptivity. That is all.