I recently read an article by Arlene Davila about the struggles of Latino and Latin American artists. Among other things, Davila discusses how current cultural factors such as multiculturalism and the Euro-centric art world affect issues of identity and recognition or visibility. I was struck by the similarities to New Age’s situation. Both groups have a precarious position in relation to their wider framework that affects what identity is portrayed and what identity is perceived, as well as their visibility.
Concerning visibility, “… U.S.- based [and / or] born Latinos remain in an unsorted and ambiguous category. Considered neither truly U.S. American or Latin American, they are sometimes included and at other times excluded from… ‘Latin American art’” (Davila, 182). As New Age is often in the gray space between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘movement’ the same issue occurs. Both in academia and mainstream society New Age is often left out of these categories and relevant discussions. This ambiguity often renders New Age, like Latino artists, invisible in their respective niches.
The other issue is that New Age does not fit into any of these categories neatly. When it is forced into one of these categories they must compete in a system not built to suit them. This is not dissimilar to the position of Latino artists in the art world. “… Latinos, versus Latin Americans, are placed in a peripheral position within the field of Latin American art and pressed to seek validation and recognition from the structures that represent Latin American art, while the latter often reject any association with U.S.-based Latinos” (Davila 192). Similarly, New Age is at the periphery of the ‘religion’ category. Partly due to the criteria enforced by the ‘world religions’ paradigm, and also due to New Agers own rejection of the label and its associations. Being forced resolutely into a category in which it does not belong, forces New Age to be examined with ‘religion’ criteria and held in comparison to ‘world religions’.
In the case of Latino / Latin American artists, the problem is exacerbated by multicultural trends. According to Davila, “… anthropologists have noted that the discourse of multiculturalism reproduces an essential view of cultural identities, whereby these are seen and presented as single, concrete and identifiable entities” (183). For New Ager, the religious-spiritual dichotomy and the world religion paradigm have the same effect. They create narrow views of what constitutes a religious or spiritual system when there is in fact a whole spectrum of qualities. I think that these structures have such black and white ways due to the influence of secularism.
Secularism encourages separation, boundaries, categories and definitive labels. For New Age, this tendency provides not only a skewed view of the variety and nature of these traditions, but also works to create an over-simplified concept of these traditions that in-turn is marketed to the wider culture creating misconceptions, shallowness and stereotypes. Anything outside this narrow view is then regarded as alternative or less authentic. In the Latin American art world, “The evaluations, in turn, led to hierarchies and distinctions…” (Davila, 185). As New Age structures and practices often fall outside prescribed guidelines they are ranked low in the hierarchy of religious and spiritual traditions. These rigid criteria reduce the visibility of New Age traditions and forces them to be ranked lower than ‘world religions’, which creates misconceptions about the legitimacy of New Age as a religious or spiritual path.
It is a complex issue with no overnight solution. Davila identifies the following as a goal to help resolve the issue, “… it is not appropriate to discontinue making connections with Latin American artists and programs; the goal was rather to redefine the place of [in this case] Puerto Ricans within the larger category of Latin American art” (194). I think a similar effort needs to be made by New Agers. They must remain part of the religion-spirituality system / community to continue making connections and having fruitful conversations. However the efforts need to focus on redefining where New Age fits in that system. The criteria also need to be relaxed to accommodate new and different forms of religion and spirituality.
Davila, Arlene. “Latinizing Culture: Art, Museums, and the Politics of U.S. Multicultural Encompassment,” in Cultural Anthropology, 1999. 14(2), pp. 180-202.