“The close observation that Goethe championed and was his means to knowledge, to ‘true theory,’ was precisely the promise held out for photography for many, many decades, perhaps 130 years if you count up through the late 1970s. And that is when I started taking pictures, at the very moment when the truth claims of the photograph were being dismantled by theory. That moment of the ‘Discourse of Others’ has passed, or shifted, but it marked me, changed for good the way I work.”[1]
 Moyra Davey,  Les Goddesses . 2011, Color video, with sound, 61 min. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee, 2015.

Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses. 2011, Color video, with sound, 61 min. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee, 2015.

 

Moyra Davey's writing strategies: a critical and creative research study

The above quote circulates, with various tweaks of language, in several of contemporary visual artist, writer, and editor Moyra Davey’s recent works of film and writing.[2] In one occurrence, Davey reads the quote as voiceover to a scene in which she paces and then sits in her New York apartment’s small kitchen (the domestic backdrop for much of her visual and written work), four minutes from the end of Davey’s 61-minute film Les Goddesses (2011). It is a near-concluding statement.

In the quote, Davey directly addresses the postmodern view of knowledge and its relationship to power, its power on her within the discipline of fine art and in the wider world. When Davey took up photography in the late 1970s, she captured many black-and-white images of her sisters, often semi-nude—which feature in Les Goddesses and its interrelated worksbefore the impact of postmodern feminist theory resulted in a self-imposed two-decade prohibition on capturing the human form.[3] I propose to study, and to emulate in my own work, Davey’s recent artistic approaches to these intersecting dynamics of knowledge, power, and creative practice.

The so-called “Discourse of Others,” which—as Davey observes—defined photographic theory in the late 1970s to early 1990s, was codified in the worlds of contemporary art practice and scholarship in Craig Owens’s short 1983 paper “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” Owens describes a Western European “crisis of cultural authority,” first recognized in the 1950s, due to a reassessment of the colonialist “domination and conquest” of other societies and its gradual replacement with ideals of cultural pluralism.[4] This shift in power relations, Owens writes, “reduces us [the dominant ones] to being an other among others.”[5] 

Recognizing this shift had mighty effects on the visual artists who embraced postmodern theory, as Davey reflects on in the quote. Photographers could no longer rely on the traditional authority of visual art, “its claim to represent some authentic vision of the world,” to tell universal truths, or capture unshakable knowledge.[6] Of equal significance, the feminist analysis of male power foregrounded both the objectification of women (and other vulnerable subjects) and their near-invisibility in art as active subjects, further complicating committed artists’ decision-making about what to depict and how to give form to their ideas.

Together, these understandings of knowledge and power prompted artist Martha Rosler, for example, to present photographs of New York’s slum doorways without the figures of their homeless inhabitants, alongside typewritten word clouds listing synonyms for drunkenness. Rather than trying to authoritatively speak for, represent, or claim full knowledge of others, Rosler presented absence and thought-fragments, eschewing strict relationships between image and caption.

This theoretical context similarly prompted Davey’s abandonment of the semi-nude image by 1985.[7] Owens’s paper hinges on the “treacherous” intersection of these frameworks: “the feminist critique of patriarchy and the postmodernist critique of representation.”[8] This is exactly the knife-edge Davey walked when she started taking pictures, and which I will argue, she has returned to in ever more complex ways in her later career.

REFERENCES

[1] Moyra Davey, Les Goddess/Hemlock Forest (New York: Dancing Foxes Press, 2017), 52.
[2] This version of the quote is from Davey’s artist book Les Goddess/Hemlock Forest (2017). Other key interconnected examples featuring the quote include Davey’s films Les Goddesses (2011) and Hemlock Forest (2016), and her essays “The Wet and the Dry (The Social Life of the Book)” (2011) and “Caryatids and Promiscuity” (2016).
[3] Moyra Davey, “Caryatids and Promiscuity.” October 158 (2016): 21–29.
[4] Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York: The New Press, 1983) 57.
[5] Ibid, 58.
[6] Ibid, 58.
[7] The feminist analysis of male power is similar to the postcolonial analysis of Western power: native peoples were (and are) also objectified in word and image, and yet near-invisible as active subjects in ethnographic study of their lives and cultures.
[8] Owens, 59.