Navigating the Dynamics of Hope and Despair in Contemporary Spirituality:
Reflections on Eva Rothschild and the New Age


As an artist, Eva Rothschild’s works are a combination of fantasy desires and familiar reality that become doorways to innovative visions and reflections of themes and aspirations constituting the seeking impulse of contemporary spirituality. In particular, she employs images and objects that have meaning within New Age spirituality and explores ways of reinvesting these with some of their original psychic power. In her mixture of the usual and the exotic, the complex and the minimal, Rothschild communicates the essential open thrust and originality of contemporary spirituality while at the same time conveying its more obscure, vapid and hidden side of cynicism and disappointment.

With its protean mix of nuance and the bizarre, the New Age itself remains among the more difficult of contemporary spiritual developments to comprehend and portray. It also retains an inordinate amount of criticism that is directed against its varied practices and more prominent beliefs. While New Age must find its place alongside the more traditional faiths and world religions, some of its severest critics are found among those who espouse a scientifically based form of philosophical atheism. This attitude tends to have little respect for any religion and claims that most have done much more harm than good throughout the pages of history. Religions in general are seen as impediments to intellectual and moral progress – maintaining not only primitive superstitions but persecuting those who hold other ideas.

Nevertheless, the philosophical atheist viewpoint, when pressed, will usually grant that the `established religions’ took their origins in the uncertainties of humanity’s original confrontations with existence and the corollary need to develop cogent, practical strategies for survival against the vicissitudes of untamed nature. Such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are seen as outgrowths of primal concerns with fertility, the weather and death. Because of humanity’s necessity for social existence, religion also developed ritual and codes of ethics. The contemporary atheist understands religion as a product of deep needs and fears associated with the extreme precariousness of early human life.

When it comes to considering New Age and related forms of contemporary religiosity, this same attitude dismisses the new spirituality as essentially narcissistic. New Age religions are not real religions but only about the self. The preoccupation that has to do with `me’ only is described as touchy-feely, airy-fairy, intellectually vapid and eclectically woolly. Philosophic critics describe New Age as cheaply false, spiritually kitsch, and a mumbo jumbo mash that is pastel-coloured and lavender-scented. Its central purpose for them is to make money from those reputedly foolish enough to purchase its many gimmicks and psycho-physical therapies.

The New Age response to this criticism would be to accept that religions have their roots in early practicalities and anxieties but that uncertainty and the need for pragmatic solutions is no less a part of our ever-changing and increasingly complicated world. The New Ager is also as likely to retort that if Christianity, Buddhism and the other major religions are now established, they were not always so but were once themselves essentially new religious spiritualities. Despite the wide range of beliefs and practices that might fall under the general rubric of `New Age’, as a religious perspective, New Age is no less a shared attempt to understand what constitutes the world, humanity and the supernatural and the relationships between them in ways that give meaning to participants’ lives and help them determine what is valuable within some sort of workable framework. The heart of New Age is not such superficial peripherals as candles, crystals and incense. It is instead the increasing awareness in today’s world of individual difference and cultural multiplicity that religious choice is a personal decision. Religious truth is no longer the monopoly of private elites or esoteric cabals. Spirituality has become truly democratic. In the current information age of electronic communication, spiritual prerogative belongs to everyone.

In contrast to this defence, critics argue that New Age is simply a fad. It is accused of being shallow, self-indulgent, escapist and superstitious – offering little more than a potpourri equivalent of snake-oil cures. But once again, faddism is New Age’s means and not its goal. New Age uses the currently popular to explore, test and digest each religion’s symbols, images, objects and `spiritual truths’ as the means to understand their validity and usefulness. While much of this pursuit can accurately be labelled uncritical, New Age’s insistence on the undemanding and pleasant is simply a reflection of present-day consumer-society. The critic accuses New Age of adopting the position that `anything goes’, but the reality of New Age experimentation is that everything is tried and sampled. There are no restrictions. This is the way it seeks to uncover meaning and value within a religious framework that applies as much to the individual as it might also to various collectivities or to society itself.

The shallow, scented and evasive proclivities of what is termed characteristically New Age is primarily a media-induced creation. The press has tended to sensationalise the practice of channelling and use of crystals, but New Age itself is something more than these and often something much more. As New Age editor, Marilyn Ferguson, describes it, the New Age is an `Aquarian conspiracy’ that endeavours and promotes humanitarian and ecological consciousness. The problem for New Age in gaining a respectable public image lies more with the fact that decentralist empowerment policies, citizen diplomacy missions, ecological and educational reform, and holistic thought do not sell newspapers. New Age’s deepest problem is a public relations issue.

When we look beneath the popular image of New Age, we find that its antecedents are not at all new or recent but derive from various venerable aspects of what Colin Campbell terms the `cultic milieu’. Among these we find the Spiritualist, New Thought and Theosophical traditions of the nineteenth century. From these particular orientations, New Age inherits its practice of channelling spirits or entities from other dimensions, its belief that both illness and poverty are illusions or diseases of the mind, and its understandings of karma and reincarnation. The `cultic milieu’ is itself a mix of non-mainstream spiritual and esoteric ideas imported from the east and blended with western occult and pagan notions. The bedrock New Age spiritual position is Gnostic or transcendental. It seeks divine truth as something that is masked by the physical phenomenal world. Ultimately nature is an illusion and something to be penetrated in order to gain access to `higher understandings’.

In the 1960s, at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, the Jewish-German ex-patriot Fritz Perls introduced his group Gestalt therapy with its stress on the value of immediate, authentic experience within a framework that took the mind/body as a holistic organism rather than a Cartesian dichotomy. Perls, along with such seminal thinkers as Wilhelm Reich, Otto Rank, Kurt Lewin, and Carl Rogers and such complementary practices as Abraham Maslow’s Self-Actualisation and Roberto Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, launched the field of humanistic psychology from which the Growth and Human Potential movements took their birth. Beginning in California and quickly spreading beyond, Human Potential intertwined with the American psychedelic heritage and spawned numerous self-help/psycho-physical therapeutic practices. As these became increasingly integrated with the `cultic milieu’, the New Age as a self-conscious spiritual movement began to evolve. In a sense, New Age represents the spiritualization of the  Human Potential movement.

While New Age constitutes the dominant trend of contemporary spirituality in general and may be seen, therefore, to derive from specific cultural or sub-cultural trends (theosophy, spiritualism, humanistic and later transpersonal psychologies), it is nevertheless a disparate conglomerate of different movements and/or religions. Sociologically, it remains difficult to grasp. It is not a traditional church and not an identifiable sect. It is neither a mainstream denomination nor a single unorthodox cult. It has no institutional mechanism for determining membership or countenancing expulsion. There is no one who can speak for the movement as a whole, there is no list of creeds, and there is no registrar of membership. It is instead a loose series of networks, often cellular and replicate, with a constantly shifting rostrum of spokespeople, therapists and teachers. In short, its fluid organisation or even non-organisation makes it more of a consumer phenomenon than anything that could be understood as traditionally religious. In fact, New Agers frequently proclaim that they are not religious but rather spiritual. The non-institutional nature and marketing choice of New Age appears to be its underlying appeal. The New Age represents a if not the spiritual consumer supermarket that is steadily superseding the appeal of traditional religion in the west. For our rapidly changing society, New Age is an affirmation and celebration of spiritual choice.

But despite the great disparities of practice and pursuit we encounter throughout the broad range of what can be labelled as New Age, we find certain common denominators of belief. Among these there is the acceptance that we have all lived previously, that our present life is not our first or only life. This attitude is largely to be traced to eastern ideas of reincarnation that New Age inherited from Theosophy. It is predicated upon the essentially gnostic belief that the cycle of rebirth is something from which to escape and transcend. In this sense, New Age contrasts strongly with contemporary forms of western paganism that embrace the world as a desirable and welcome reincarnation as offering a means for the return to earthly life.

From its Spiritualist legacy, on the other hand, New Age accepts that we can communicate with the dead. Once again, this possibility relates to the idea that this life is not all that there is. With or without reincarnation, or at least between successive incarnations, there is, to use the Spiritualist designation, Summerland – the realm of spirits in the beyond. Spiritualism insisted that we can communicate with our deceased family members and loved ones for guidance, knowledge and confirmation. New Age has tended to take this further and, especially through its theosophical affinities, is less interested in the departed as it is in contacting spiritual masters or mahatmas, extraterrestrial beings or space-brethren, and extra-dimensional discarnates. New Age is not concerned with Spiritualism’s desire to prove the existence of life-after-death but rather with the acquisition of `higher wisdom’ to assist one’s spiritual development in the here-and-now.

From its origins in New Thought, New Age assumes that evil is an illusion of the mind. It seeks therefore to eradicate both illness and penury for the individual – at least the evolved individual who comes to understand the almost limitless power of the human brain and its relationship to ultimate universal energy. For New Age, this translates into the doctrine that we can heal ourselves. Its many Human Potential therapies from Rolfing, yoga, Reiki, shiatsu, reflexology, t’ai chi, gestalt, encounter, bio-energetics, iridology, est, Zen, Aikido, Transactional Analysis and Transcendental Meditation are simply different vehicles through which the New Ager seeks self-healing. In other words, these techniques aim to assist the individual toward actualising the implicit assumption that the negative is simply a figment of the imagination.

The Human Potential aspect of New Age also relates directly to what we could identify as a fourth New Age belief, namely, that we are in charge of our lives. This attitude along with the belief that the negative or evil of illness and deprivation is an illusion comprises the daring and singular uniqueness of New Age: its insistence on the positive and utter denial of hindrance. In this sense alone, New Age is an affirmation that demands the world to be as it wishes it and sees it. Concepts of retribution, original sin and punishment become completely alien in the New Age context, and while we might judge such an attitude to be naïve and foolish, New Age affirms the power of positive thinking as a means to obtaining progressive ends. If there is one spiritual principle that distinguishes New Age from the world’s other major religions, it is probably this.

And, finally, in keeping with its place in the gnostic lineage, New Age is the belief that spiritual truth comes from within. It is not a product of revelation or external acquisition but one of inner development and discovery. In this complete valourisation of self-experience, New Age affirms its belief in both seekership and the validation of private experience. In this sense, New Age offers a new form of mysticism – not a mysticism of escape as we find in Hinduism and Buddhism, nor quite the mysticism of union with God that occurs with esoteric Christianity or Sufism, but a mysticism of becoming a god. Authority and validity belong to the inner, private individual where, for New Age, lies the source of truth.

All these essential New Age beliefs – that we have lived before, that we can communicate with discarnate forms of consciousness, that we can heal ourselves and are in charge of our lives, and that spiritual truth is something to be discovered within the sanctity of the self rather than in a sacred text, or from a pulpit, or through an ecclesiastical sacrament or via an act of external or transcendental grace – resonate with the contemporary forms of spirituality that appear increasingly to be turning away from traditional institutional forms. In our world of today, spirituality is about choice – perhaps reflecting our increased valuing of the consumer and the right to make decisions that reflect personal needs and desires as apart from automatically following the dictates of established authority.

Grounded by the astrological consideration that we are leaving an age of Pisces for the new age of Aquarius, the New Age is an expectation of individual change that will coalesce into a quantum leap of collective consciousness. Following current theories of complexity that study spontaneous self-organisation in which the whole becomes more than simply the sum of its parts, New Age continues the idealism of the counter-culture of the 1960s as a modification if not refutation of contemporary cynical trends by affirming the reality of magic – the magic of self-transformation, the magic of communal development and the magic of progressive global change. In this sense, as we see in the works of Eva Rothschild, there is a combination of the old and the new or, rather, a use of the old in new ways. For instance, in the artist’s leather work, You and Me, while the material seems to be old, it is used differently. Such too is the recycling of Wisdom Tradition notions dating to the alchemical schools of the middle ages and the Gnostic schools that flourished at the beginning of the Piscean Age around the time of the birth of Christ.

But additionally, as reflected in the creations of Rothschild, there is a double-sided nature of New Age. The spiritual quest is that of the seeker, but it is the process of searching itself that is important, not the achievement of a particular goal. Rothschild plays with various symbols of unity while affirming simultaneously that unity itself is the most difficult of ends to achieve. The synthesised whole must include the old with all its specious features – reflected, for example, by the holes in Rothschild’s acrylic sheet work, Blackmountainside, that proclaims through its gapped surfaces a potential unreliability in using materials from the past to construct the future. But as precarious as the past might be as foundation for what is to come, Rothschild appears to be less interested in a utopian dream but more akin to New Age pragmatics that speak increasingly less of the coming age of Aquarius and concentrate instead on the mystical experience that comes through defects and aporia in the present. In Rothschild’s words, it is an awareness of the fluidity of meaning that “allows a chink to open through which new vision or thought can enter.” Contemporary New Age spirituality is visionary; it is the vision that fuels its quest in our present times of hardcore realities and often sober disenchantments, but as Rothschild expresses it, there is no shirking or attempt to hide from hard reality but instead to work with the confusing, the unstable and visually discontinuous as sources for the creation of fantasy.

Rothschild, as an artist of her times, one who reflects the current renaissance in spiritual imagination, echoes the New Age in arriving at new beginnings and, especially, new ways of looking. This is the endeavour of the shaman who works with hardcore realities but finds innovative perspectives on them. The necessary is not precluded but incorporated into novel formats and fantasy images that release renewed and regenerated forces of desire. Rothschild expresses the vagaries of shifting perspective best in her woven wall hangings (e.g., Absolute Power) in which the whole is present but continuously concealed at the same time. The Rothschild creations are holistic mind/body emblems that return us to the organic emphasis of Fritz Perls. They are fully part of the democratic bias of contemporary spirituality and express an art that `belongs’ to everyone. Rothschild allows – even encourages – each of us to be our own authority, to bring our own hermeneutic as viewer to her works, to be as intensely intelligent or vapidly vacuous as the input we choose to invest into them.

We find throughout the artist’s works images that challenge the viewer and suggest a sinister undercurrent that is forever present in New Age despite its positive affirmations. This is an ominous quality that comes through in some of the unbalanced spiritual metaphors employed by such seminal New Age figures as Helena Blavatsky or Alice Bailey. This is not the extreme hope that characterised the 1960s counter-culture from which both New Age and contemporary western paganism descend, but it is a disturbing side of the modern/postmodern global age as it interfaces with New Age aspirations and one of which Rothschild allows us only the hint of a glimpse.


Michael York
Bath Spa University College