“It does not have wabi, Paul said, nor could it ever. But- He touched the pin with his nail. Robert, this object has wu.
I believe you are right, Childan said, trying to recall what wu was; it was not a Japanese word- it was Chinese. Wisdom, he decided. Or comprehension. Anyhow, it was highly good
The hands of the artificer, Paul said, had wu, and allowed that wu to flow into this piece. Possibly he himself knows only that this piece satisfies. It is complete, Robert. By contemplating it, we gain more wu ourselves. We experience the tranquillity associated not with art but with holy things. I recall a shrine in Hiroshima wherein a shinbone of some medieval saint could be examined. However, this is an artefact and that was a relic. This is alive in the now, whereas that merely remained…“
“...to have no historicity, and also no artistic, aesthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value- that is a marvel…“
“…here, an artificer has put wu into the object, rather than merely witnessed the wu inherent in it... an entire new world is pointed to, by this.“
From ‘The Man in the High Castle‘ by Philip K. Dick, 1962.
I recently re-read this book, one of my favourites among PKD’s prodigious catalogue of intensely intelligent, thought provoking and, yes, readable works. A fine example of how a great book keeps on giving you more every time you return is the fact that I’d never before been struck by the philosophy of art expressed by the character quoted above. The novel takes place in the early Sixties in California, but after it’s been bombed and then occupied by the Japanese following an Axis triumph over the Allied powers during WWII. The Nazis occupy the Eastern seaboard of the country formerly known as the USA, and of course they have subjugated Russia and Western Europe, completing the Holocaust and moving on to repeat it in Africa. Robert Childan is a dealer in the authentic memorabilia associated with the now dead Western consumerist culture, which enjoys huge popularity with the Japanese conquerors who are now the cultural and political elite of Asia and the Pacific.
Childan, however, has discovered that most of these items are fake, made solely for the purpose of pandering to Japanese romance about the “historicity” of a Western culture they are in the process of subduing and assimilating. This is an extremely prescient, insightful comment and inversion by PKD regarding the underground Japanophilia of the Fifties and Sixties (Beat Generation writers, for example). It’s probably even more prescient and insightful in light of the massive contemporary, mainstream Japanophilia that has taken hold in the West during the early Twenty-First century, thanks to the internet. In an attempt to extricate himself from the inevitable collapse of the antiques market that would accompany discovery of such large scale deception and fraud, Childan has taken on some entirely new pieces of jewellery and sculpture, ironically made by a former forger of Americana. It’s these that the incongruously named Paul, a rich Japanese client of Childan’s, is discussing in the passage quoted above.
The wabi that, according to Paul, does not reside in the object he holds is one half of the canonical Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi (侘寂). Neither translates adequately or simply into English, but wabi could be described as the simplicity and/or elegance of either a natural or a man-made object. Sabi is the beauty that comes with use or age, or by virtue of the balance between the object’s permanence and impermanence. Together wabi and sabi make things look typically and obviously Japanese.
Wu wei (無爲), as Robert Childan correctly notes, is not a Japanese concept. Wu wei is a central Daoist Chinese tenet, and it means “without action.” The natural, unforced energy of wu wei can be expressed in the related phrase wei wu wei: “action without action.” Water acts without acting; it has no will, no purpose, hardly any form and yet it can carve valleys, wear away mountains or – as we have seen recently- obliterate the carefully constructed trappings of our civilisation.
This brings us finally to some of the things about contemporary art that bother and annoy me frequently, although I’ve struggled to put it as elegantly as PKD does via Paul.
 Most works of contemporary art are not complete. They’re always referring to other things, the artist has their arms folded and they’re smirking at you, testing your knowledge of art history or of what other artists have been doing recently. If we don’t grasp or are not interested in these particular and specific references, then we get nothing from the work. If we do grasp these references, we still get nothing from the work except perhaps a vague notion that the artist knows a lot of art history or knows a lot of other artists. We the audience don’t get any wu in either case, that’s for certain, because the artist was too busy being a smartarse to even be capable of expressing or sharing wu in any meaningful way; there’s really nothing of themselves in their work. It’s merely the sum of what they know and who they know, nothing more.
 “…that was a relic. This is alive in the now, whereas that merely remained…” Really, how many art works and art exhibitions have you seen where everything was merely a relic of something, everything merely remained? How many are either overtly or covertly about the stifling “historicity” that I mentioned above, the historicity that also obsesses and confounds the Japanese conquerors in this book. I can confidently say from my own experience that most contemporary art exhibitions seem to be like this.
 How many (so-called) contemporary art works are truly alive in the now, partake of some ethereal value, or point to an entire new world?