Nan Goldin’s Life Between Art and Activism

Nan Goldin’s Life Between Art and Activism

A Chosen Family

Nan Goldin’s life between art and activism.


I had turned off my phone’s ringer before a screening of Laura Poitras’s new film, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, but about halfway through I felt it silently buzz: a notification. I pulled the phone out of my pocket and saw that what had arrived was a “breaking news” alert from The New York Times: “Walmart, the largest U.S. retailer, agreed to pay $3.1 billion to resolve thousands of lawsuits over its pharmacies’ roles in the opioid crisis.”

That crisis, as we all know by now, is largely the result of an aggressive push by Purdue Pharma to make its product, OxyContin, the go-to drug for the control of chronic pain. Purdue, privately owned by the extended Sackler family, put OxyContin on the market in 1996, and in 2020, the Committee on Oversight and Reform reported that the drug had generated some $35 billion in revenue, making the Sacklers one of America’s wealthiest families. Marketed as safe and reliable, OxyContin is in fact intensely addictive and easily abused. It has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths. Many users who no longer have access to OxyContin prescriptions have gone on to use heroin or fentanyl in its place. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper published in November 2019 found that “the introduction and marketing of OxyContin explain a substantial share of overdose deaths over the last two decades.”

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed follows the story of PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the protest group founded in 2017 by the photographer Nan Goldin, who had herself become addicted to OxyContin. Goldin started the group as a response to the prominence of the Sackler name in museums throughout the United States and Europe—from the Louvre, the Metropolitan, and the British Museum on down. PAIN began agitating for art institutions to refuse donations from the Sacklers and to remove their name from museum walls—to stop according respectability to these ruthless drug pushers. Borrowing a page from ACT UP, the group used dramatic and disruptive tactics, including die-ins, to pursue its goal. PAIN received little attention at first but eventually met with widespread success; today, the Sacklers are non grata in art patronage. In the film, the culmination of PAIN’s efforts is the removal in December 2021 of the Sackler name from the wing of the Metropolitan Museum that houses the Temple of Dendur. (It should be noted that the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum is named after a family member who was never a shareholder in Purdue Pharma and so did not profit from OxyContin.)

But as that breaking-news alert from the Times suggests, the story of the opioid crisis is far from over. The same can be said for the fate of the Sacklers, though they’ve spent a fortune on insulating themselves from personal responsibility for kick-starting the crisis. Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy in September 2019 and was ordered to dissolve in September 2021, yet the family’s personal wealth—including billions that had been siphoned out of the company over the previous decade—remained abundant. But a few months later, around the time their name was effaced from the Met, another judge ruled that the settlement reached in bankruptcy court was wrong to release the Sacklers from personal liability. What will happen next remains unclear. Though the film shows Goldin and her associates reveling in their victory at the Met, Goldin herself also expresses a certainty that the Sacklers will never really pay the price for the damage they caused. Their money is its own defense.

The story of PAIN and its success in persuading museums to cut ties with some of their most lavish donors is an important one, and it resonates with the sense among many today that art institutions must somehow be prised out of the hands of plutocrats whose values and interests are at odds with those of artists and art lovers. It’s a reminder that fortunes are usually built on exploitation of one kind or another, and that no individual or family should have the means to use culture to gold-plate what might otherwise have been an unsavory reputation. Maybe that’s why, walking into the theater for my first viewing of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, I’d assumed that Goldin’s efforts with PAIN would be the film’s main subject.

In fact, that story is only one aspect of a far more complex portrait of the artist. If there’s a center to All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, it’s probably the story of Goldin’s childhood—of being raised in the repressive atmosphere of American suburbia circa 1960 by parents who were incapable of nurturing her or her older sister, Barbara. It was Barbara who showed Nan what love is, but when she became a rebellious adolescent, their parents had her institutionalized. Later, Goldin obtained hospital records indicating that Barbara had been kept there mainly to keep her away from her mother, who could only worsen her condition. After she was finally released, Barbara died by suicide at the age of 18. The parents were warned that Nan would likely meet the same fate if she continued to live with them. The inability of the conventional family to provide for the well-being of its members, and the search for an alternative form of family, provides the key to Goldin’s life and work.

So Goldin’s story is a tale about families: her birth family and its calamitous effects on her sister; her elective family in late 1970s Boston and then in 1980s New York, a kindred band of queers and junkies and other outsiders who professed not to give a damn about the mainstream society that had rejected them as vehemently as they rejected it; and, of course, the Sackler family, Jewish like her own, whose patriarch enjoined his children to “leave the world a better place than when you entered it.” Well, we all know how that turned out. It’s also a story about the dialectics of dependency—from the “sexual dependency” that Goldin chronicled in her most notable work, to the chemical dependencies that have been so much a part of this artist’s life—and the drive to establish autonomy. And it’s a story about the power of art, as well as its limitations when the conditions of life require a more direct intervention.

Biography is not usually the best way to explore an artist’s work, but Goldin is a special case: an artist whose work is more intimately concerned with her life and milieu than most. You might say that her photography is not just about life; it is a way into life, a way of being with others, of finding solidarity in a harsh world. In the film, Goldin describes herself as having been an almost pathologically shy and withdrawn teenager, until the progressive “hippie school” where she’d landed after separating from her family at the age of 14 received a donation of cameras from the Polaroid Corporation. Suddenly she had a voice, a way to connect.

The incessant refrain of commentators on Goldin’s art is that she differs from other photographers in that—as Fredrik Liew writes in the publication accompanying “This Will Not End Well,” Goldin’s current exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm— “instead of being a spectator, she works from within her direct experience.” That show comprises her work from the 1980s to the present in the form of slideshows and video, and the densely illustrated catalog, with new texts by writers like Vince Aletti, Eileen Myles, and Lucy Sante, offers an insightful overview. But her immediate and casual-looking style had been anticipated by an older generation of photographers like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, whose “snapshot aesthetic” overturned previous ideas of good composition and lighting. “I don’t worry about how the picture is going to look,” Winogrand proclaimed. “I let that take care of itself.” This insouciance, in the best cases, led to pictures of incredible energy and complexity.

What Winogrand and the others kept from the documentary tradition was a conception of the photographic project as a journey of discovery, an exploration of the world “out there,” a way of seeing how other people are. Photography, in this sense, has a quasi-anthropological function. But Goldin has mostly eschewed this impulse. She doesn’t work to find out how “they” live, as the Swiss-born Frank did when he toured the United States to create his renowned book The Americans, for instance, but to record, in a diaristic mode, how “we” live. Her work has been more like a family album than an objective study.

Staying close to Goldin’s own identification of her art with her life, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed returns again and again to her images as a way to tell her life story, and to her life story as a way to illuminate the images. Poitras’s documentary might almost function as a kind of mini-retrospective, giving viewers who already know Goldin’s work a welcome reminder, while those who are coming to it fresh can enjoy a clear introduction. And while the film was directed by Poitras—who surpasses here the sensitivity she showed in her portrayal of Edward Snowden in her Academy Award–winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour —it really should be considered a collaboration between Poitras and Goldin, whose viewpoint, voice, and presence are so central to the film. Poitras revealed Snowden, you might say, but thanks to her skill at weaving together all these threads with such a cunning sense of rhythm, she allows Goldin to reveal herself. The portrait of the artist is also a self-portrait, and all the more powerful for that. Moreover, seeing Goldin’s work projected on a screen means seeing it in its native habitat. While Goldin also shows it in the form of framed prints and gathers it in books, her great innovation has been her use of the slide show as an art form: images that move past you in sequence, each one, perhaps—to twist a famous phrase of Walter Benjamin’s violently out of context—meant to “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”

It all started with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency—still Goldin’s most famous work, and arguably still her best. The work took form in 1980 and has remained a fluid, protean project: The version in the Stockholm show is dated 1981–2022. For most of us, it is encapsulated in the book of the same name, first published in 1986 and still in print. The Ballad is undoubtedly a work that only a young person could have made; the images are permeated by a sense of desperation peculiar to that time in life, one based on the self’s identification with its desires and its desirability. Goldin once called it “the history of a re-created family, without the traditional roles.” Like most families, Goldin’s “family of friends” is as full of pain and conflict as it is of love. No one will ever forget her self-portrait with black eyes after a boyfriend beat her up; it’s a paean to survival.

In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Goldin recalls how, at the early showings of the Ballad slide show, the audience was made up mostly of the same people who were in the pictures. She took photographs of her friends and then would pass them around the group; if someone didn’t like the way they looked in one, they would just remove it. And yet the pictures are not just about the individuals we see; they are about the whole situation—the space, the light and especially the darkness that saturate them, the shifting vibrations of relationships among the people in them. The whole frame is fraught with the anticipation of something, who knows what, that might be about to happen. Goldin’s eye was unique, but it functioned as an instrument of something beyond the individual sensibility. Hers was a community bonded by sexual and social nonconformity—and by drugs. “I wanted to be a junkie,” Goldin recently told the writer Darryl Pinckney. “I grew up wanting to be a junkie.”

Addiction wasn’t the worst scourge to afflict Goldin’s found family. Not only was 1981 the year that she began work on The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; it was also the year in which The New York Times published a story with the ominous headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The AIDS epidemic was beginning. It too leaves its mark on the cycle’s imagery—for instance, in the stark, unforgettable depiction of Cookie Mueller, the writer and performer who is one of the series’ recurrent figures, at the open-casket funeral of her husband, Vittorio Scarpati, just about two months before her own death. In 1989, Goldin organized “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” an exhibition at Artists Space in New York that functioned as a cri de coeur from a community devastated by the virus and raging against the dying. The show included work by more than 20 artists, among them the photographer Peter Hujar, who had died of AIDS, as well as others who were ill, including Scarpati, Mark Morrisroe, and David Wojnarowicz.

“Witnesses” became a pawn in the era’s culture wars before it even opened. Stung by the puffed-up controversy fomented by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and others over the grants given to Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and other artists, the National Endowment for the Arts ruled that the show was “political rather than artistic in nature” and withdrew the funding it had already committed. An alternative explanation for the decision, also offered by the NEA’s chairman, was that Wojnarowicz’s essay in the exhibition catalog (which had not been funded by the NEA) included searing, over-the-top blasts at Helms (“I can, in the privacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire”), then–New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor (“This fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas up on fifth avenue”), and other public figures who had taken blatantly homophobic stances on AIDS.

“Witnesses” proved to be the moment when Goldin and her allies faced down the powerful political forces attempting to quash them and came out on top—the ensuing controversy ended with the NEA backing down from the cancellation of its grant. And as All the Beauty and the Bloodshed shows, it was also the moment when Goldin’s inward-looking focus on her immediate coterie took on a public and political face, prefiguring her eventual role as the organizer of PAIN. Wojnarowicz, who appears in this part of the film as the prophetic voice of righteous anger, serves as a sort of model for Goldin in her role as spokesperson for the victims of the Sacklers’ greed. “To make the private into something public,” as Wojnarowicz declared, “is an action that has terrific repercussions” in exposing the fragility of an imposed consensus: “To turn our private grief at the loss of friends, family, lovers, and strangers into something public would serve as another powerful dismantling tool. It would dispel the notion that this virus has a sexual orientation or the notion that the government and medical community has done very much to ease the spread or advancement of this disease.” Goldin, too, would make a public issue of private suffering.

As Goldin writes in the catalog for the the 1989 “Witnesses” exhibition: “I feel my own recent recovery from addiction, and that of many of my friends, is directly related to AIDS. With the advent of a fatal illness in our midst, the glorification of self-destruction wore thin. We were no longer playing with death—it was real and among us, and not at all glamorous.”

Nearly three decades later, the lesson of AIDS would teach Goldin how to respond to a different kind of epidemic, the opioid crisis. “I believe I owe it to those affected by this epidemic to make the personal political,” she wrote in the January 2018 issue of Artforum. “I read the brilliant articles by Patrick Radden Keefe and Margaret Talbot (in the New Yorker) and Christopher Glazek (in Esquire) and I interpreted them as a call to arms. I knew of no political movements on the ground like ACT UP. Most of my community was lost to AIDS. I can’t stand by and watch another generation disappear.”

Goldin had been prescribed OxyContin following a surgery and immediately became addicted. After surviving a fentanyl overdose, she went into rehab and got clean. As she makes clear in the film, she still depends on buprenorphine, itself an opioid, which is used to treat opioid-use disorder. “This is not my road to recovery,” she says in the film. “It is my recovery.”

Meanwhile, the opioid epidemic continues. As I was putting the finishing touches on this essay, I noticed a New York Times headline concerning another pharmaceutical firm unconnected to the Sacklers: “Justice Dept. Sues AmerisourceBergen Over Role in Opioid Crisis.” Will this story ever end?

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy