A photographer doesn’t invent her subjects, she finds them. Nan Goldin has always found hers very close to home. From the beginning of her career, Goldin never drew a boundary between her art and her life. Now, thanks to Laura Poitras’s 2022 documentary, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” we can take a deep dive into both, if we dare.
Goldin interprets the world through the lens of her own pain. No gauzy numbness, no beaming selfies. She began taking pictures as a troubled teenager, not long after her older sister’s suicide, then blazed onto the art scene in 1985 when her now-famous “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” appeared in the Whitney Biennial. The forty-five-minute slide show clicks through hundreds of images — mostly couples, many grungy, some bruised — while a soundtrack plays wrenching songs about love and longing by artists ranging from The Velvet Underground to Georges Bizet to James Brown to Petula Clark. (Try not to weep while Dean Martin, circa 1955, unironically croons “Memories Are Made of This.”) The work is raw, ruthless, unsentimental. Goldin says it’s the diary she lets people read.
Video of Dean Martin singing “Memories Are Made of This,” 1955
Nan Goldin and director Laura Poitras at the Venice premiere for Golden Lion winner
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” at the 79th Venice International Film Festival
Her theme has always been human suffering and degradation — mental illness, domestic violence, sex work, addiction. Her new work focuses exclusively on addiction, but now, rather than producing photographic documents, she is organizing activist performances.
Goldin began the new work six years ago, inspired by her own near-fatal, post-surgery addiction to OxyContin. At age 63, she began leveraging her considerable power in the art world to lead a series of protests against museums that had accepted donations from the Sackler family. At the time, the Sacklers were best known to artists for having their names on museum walls, markers of their extravagant philanthropy. But the source of that donated money, and the target of Goldin’s demonstrations, was Perdue Pharma, the family-owned company that made and marketed OxyContin, the lethally addictive, and therefore infinitely lucrative, synthetic opioid. Perdue eventually went out of business but not before they struck a 6-billion-dollar deal that bought them a lifetime shield prohibiting states from pursuing claims against them. Before OxyContin, Perdue pushed Valium. The family’s vast wealth derives completely from this Möbius strip: suffering leads to drug use to relieve pain, which leads to addiction, which leads to more suffering. Repeat ad infinitum. Proving there are few better business model than legally peddling addictive drugs.
It was not a coincidence, then, that Goldin named her advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now.)
P.A.I.N. protests are nonviolent, quiet, and stunningly simple. In 2019, Goldin targeted the Guggenheim Museum, which accepted 9 million dollars from the Sacklers between 1995 and 2015. Protesters gathered at the top of the spiral and at a signal from Goldin dropped homemade prescriptions, which fluttered like snow through that grand, esteemed space onto museum goers. As the prescriptions fluttered downward, protesters below fell on the floor as if dead.
Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg, “Die-In” at Harvard Art Museum 2019, photograph
The idea came from an unearthed memo written by a member of the Sackler family announcing a marketing strategy to create a “blizzard” of OxyContin prescriptions. The message is eloquent and unmistakable. The Sackler family knowingly and cynically made billions from an addiction crisis that they created, then continued to do so as the body count of overdoses and suicides mounted.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) synthetic opioids (other than methadone) are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths. In 2020 82.3% of opioid-related overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids.
These numbers don’t begin to address the collateral damage, the continuing pain of those addicts who didn’t die but can’t kick the drug, or who have kicked it but live with the pain of withdrawal on a daily basis. Then there’s the pain of the addicts’ family and friends and the devastating impact on families throwing all their resources into recovery programs that don’t work. It’s a heartbreaking mess, especially as most Americans know someone who’s an opioid addict. The idea of creating this problem, then profiting off it is truly monstrous.
What’s brilliant about Goldin‘s new work is that it’s both art and activism, and always personal. Moreover, it has worked. Thanks to her status in the art world people paid attention. Eventually world-class museums, including the Louvre and the Met, were shamed into removing the Sackler name from their walls. The reputation-laundering operation that is high-end philanthropy was, for once, stripped of its hypocritical glamor. No reputable museum wants to be associated with these legal drug pushers now that they’ve been exposed.
Toward the end of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” a chilling scene unfolds during a video call between members of P.A.I.N., all of whom are either addicts or family members of dead addicts, and two of the Sackler heirs. The heirs’ stony faces say it all. To acknowledge any sympathy would be to forfeit the right to every penny of their vast wealth.
As powerful as all this is, director Poitras never lets go of the biographical thread, without which Goldin’s activism would be no less morally impressive but not nearly so poignant. She takes us back to Goldin’s formative trauma, the institutionalization, then suicide, of her older sister, Barbara. We learn about Goldin’s own early heroin addiction (which must have made the OxyContin addiction all the more powerful and horrifying), her sex work, her long relationship with a battering boyfriend, the photographic evidence of which is now a benchmark in the history of photographic self-portraiture.
Elizabeth Bick, Nan Goldin leads die-in demonstration against
the Sackler family at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Bick and New Yorker Magazine
The boyfriend went for her eyes, she tells us. He tried to blind her. Luckily, for us, Goldin was not blinded. We are the beneficiaries of her sight.