The Lessons of Nan Goldin’s Struggle Against the Sacklers

Laura Poitras, ‘All the beauty and the bloodshed’, 2022. Courtesy Altitude

Laura Poitras’s documentary portrait All the beauty and the bloodshed reminds us of what is at stake in the artworld’s complicity in laundering reputations

Snow tumbles to the ground of a Washington suburb in an opening scene from All the beauty and the bloodshed (2022), Laura Poitras’s documentary portrait of the photographer Nan Goldin. This is the spare and secretive environment of Goldin’s childhood, where her family’s tendency for denial and repression would catalyse a career challenging the limitations of permissible candour. As we consider the tight-lipped doorways and shuttered windows, a string section supplies a crescendo from Act III of Purcell’s King Arthur (1691), leading to a rendition of an aria dubbed ‘The Cold Song’ by its performer Klaus Nomi. In a refrain sung soon before his death from AIDS in 1983, Nomi pleads with an audience of thousands in Munich, close to where he was born, to ‘Let me, let me, let me, freeze again… to death’.

It is a fitting reference for a film – currently lighting up the festival circuit – that tracks Goldin’s latter-day struggles against members of the Sackler dynasty: revealing the ways in which their philanthropic contributions to the worlds of art and academia belie an empire of shame built on pharmaceutical riches, and how, as the owners of Purdue Pharma which produced OxyContin, they became some of the leading architects of America’s opioid crisis. But Nomi’s performance is also cited here for its totemic bravery against a backdrop of suburban avoidance. The fact that audiences can now freely watch the performance online seems equally fitting for the spirit of a generation in which Goldin was central – one that defined itself in opposition to the paywalls of formality, and strove, wherever possible, to overcome the enclosures of the traditional home and gallery space. 

Poitras navigates the personal, political and artistic with skill – here the author is very much alive and reassuringly rambunctious. Despite the hardships she has endured, Goldin reflects on her good fortune in surviving an overdose of fentanyl, caused by a spiralling OxyContin dependency. Her resolve is remarkable to witness. Poitras draws a line from Goldin’s earliest years, from the impact of her sister’s suicide, to finding a home among New York’s queer communities, engaging in sex work and experiencing domestic abuse, and on to her more recent involvement with anti-Pharma causes. P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the organisation founded by Goldin in 2017, is responsible for the removal of the Sackler name from a number of cultural institutions, including The Louvre, Tate, The Guggenheim and The Met. The film highlights the artistry of Goldin’s protests – perhaps more aptly termed interventions – like pouring hundreds of replica OxyContin bottles into the pool in the Egyptian galleries at The Met, and unleashing a ‘blizzard of prescriptions’ (a direct quotation from Richard Sackler regarding the launch of OxyContin in 1996) in the Guggenheim main hall (ideas that were formulated collectively, in the manner Goldin has always worked). Much of the documentary centres on her home, and there is a beautiful symmetry between the gatherings that Goldin documented at The Bowery loft in the 1970s and 80s, and the gatherings of her fellow organisers in the rather more sedate surroundings of today – the latter lending a familial warmth to the former; and the former inducting the latter into a tradition of radical resistance.

After watching this delicately drawn picture of a tremendous life, however, I’m left feeling troubled by the persistently vainglorious tendencies of the contemporary artworld; one of quaint gallery spaces supporting networks of privately-educated friends, in which artists hold an adolescent belief in the supreme importance of personal expression (while adopting a laissez-faire economics to support it). Poitras, as such, is preoccupied by Goldin’s integrity. The film recalls a 1989 exhibition curated by Goldin at Artist’s Space in New York, in which she included several works by her friend, the artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. In one scene, Wojnarowicz is visibly distressed, after the managers at Artist’s Space censored his description of the Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor – who had opposed the teaching of safe sex and distribution of condoms in schools – as a ‘fat cannibal… creep in black skirts’.  

In title and content, a tacit but unmistakable connection is being drawn between the Catholic Church’s historical use of art in its shock-and-awe tactics, and the wealthy investors doing the same today. Such is the impact of Goldin’s interventions – which not only expose the roots of the Sacklers’ philanthropy, but the broader habit of art-washing – that one naturally starts to think of the artworld’s continuing complicity in such endeavours (for instance, the Zabludowicz Collection in London, which has met criticism and disaffiliation over ties to the Israeli military). Every major city teems with clean, white boxes whose primary purpose is to puff up the reputations of its patrons. 

In such a climate we leave ourselves open to the vapid, slightly embarrassing tendencies of the mid-century, whereby the radical, organised movements of the post-war period concerned with people’s actual freedoms were usurped by a fixation with freedoms of the imagination; with artists becoming so fearful of ideology as to indulge in an anaemic, bourgeois surrealism. I am thinking specifically of the current fixation with figurative painters working in the tradition of Peter Doig, many of which flooded this month’s Frieze art fair.

If Susan Sontag dispelled the myth of the objective camera lens, and the photographer as mere documentarian, then Goldin’s early work demonstrated that in fact – her camera lens was hopelessly fallible, capturing images soaked in love, anger, shame, pity; she dispensed with all prior formalities to merely relay her one, very niche and particular experience of the world. There will be many who bristle at the idea of the artist as agitator, and yet only the crudest analysis would maintain such a distinction. Removing questions of morality and politics altogether, still, there has never been a faithful definition of art that precludes expression or revelation. Even the most fawning, biased and propagandist permutations, and at the other end, the most abstract and evasive, agree on art being always invested in the making of something apparent.

By the same logic, any work that is complicit in its own reduction to objet – ornaments that will be used in a system of obfuscation and concealment of truth – ceases to be art. Perhaps it is watching Goldin’s determination as she reaches her seventieth year that prompts me to say this, and to have the guts, as she has always had, to do and say what is necessary to protect our creativity from the leeches and bores who degrade it.

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