IT JUST TAKES ONE: a single dose that forever halts your breath; a killer product that hatches a monstrous fortune; a dead-set activist who barricades herself across history’s turnpike, lying flat, blocking traffic, screaming, “STOP.”
In our timeline, there is only one Nan Goldin. A singular woman, she is largely responsible for the moral earthquake that in recent years has shaken the foundations of art and philanthropy. For decades, the art world operated as a high-end laundry service: In exchange for cash, museums and galleries would gently scrub the reputations of wealthy families such as the Sacklers, removing the stains of disfavored commercial associations—whether weapons, oil, or addictive painkillers. Effectively a modern reworking of the medieval practice of selling indulgences to absolve sins—a crucial revenue stream for the Catholic Church until the practice was banned in 1567—this business model had an impressive track record of repackaging seamy robber barons as glittering patrons of the arts.
In some ways, Laura Poitras’s spellbinding new film about Goldin’s art and activism, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, leaves the viewer unsurprised that it took a gutsy iconoclast to shatter the art world’s corrupt consensus. Goldin, of course, is an original. An era-defining artist and aesthetic pioneer, a canny analyst and a pole-dancing hustler, the survivor of a childhood warped by mental illness and an adulthood marred by disease and addiction, a fringe-hugging outsider, a veteran operator skilled at the inside game, Goldin has spent the past five years forcing a hard reset in the culture sphere through strength of will, virtuosity of craft, and righteousness of anger. “I’m incapable of being a good bourgeois person,” she once told an interviewer. “I don’t get along with normal people very well.” In comparison with younger activists like Greta Thunberg, Goldin has more points on the board. Arguably, she has rewritten the textbook on reform movements, and it won’t be surprising if her name one day features as the answer to a multiple-choice question on an AP US history exam—perhaps regarding the moment in the United States when the unholy alliance between wealth, art, and ethical impunity began to sever.
Goldin has rewritten the textbook on reform movements, and it won’t be surprising if her name one day features as the answer to a multiple-choice question on an AP US history exam.
In Poitras’s film, Goldin gets to tell her own story, though we sense she has some discomfort embroidering her legend. There may be a tactical reason for this. Deliberately or not, Goldin shames us with her singularity. She seized an opportunity that should have been obvious to thousands of others who failed to act. She breathed life into a sleeping giant—the millions of victims, previously isolated and disorganized, without a common language of outrage, whose worlds have been devoured by opioids. Her actions at museums, repeated with discipline over months, triggered a chain reaction of disavowals of Sackler cash and, finally, removal of the Sackler name. The urgent, embarrassing question is why no Nan Goldin emerged in the academy, which also became hooked on infusions of Sackler money. Why zero medical-school professors—whose line of work is allegedly healing—showed up to carry Goldin’s torch, even after witnessing her many victories. Similar questions could be asked of many others. How did you spend the past five years? Why wasn’t it you?
WHAT GOLDIN TEACHES: It takes repetition. Pounding the pavement, blaring the horn, harping, hawking, angling, stalking. An ad works only after you’ve seen it seven times. A single protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur is not enough, no matter how many shares the video gets. It must be the Met and the Guggenheim and Harvard and the Louvre and the V&A. (If you do everything, you’ll win, said LBJ, delivering a maxim with applications beyond stealing elections.) The successful activist is a dog with a bone, a person possessed, a monomaniac.
Goldin has long intuited the profane power of repetition. It’s what drives The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1976–, a compilation, over decades, of the same people, the same situations, the same haunting aesthetic of erotic shambles and contorted bliss. Repetition is the pulse of addiction. It’s onanistic. It’s one long spiral, but it isn’t sterile—it builds. It is the mother of accomplishment. It’s the most basic and effective rhetorical device, as Donald Trump and Purdue Pharma’s sales reps fully grasp. It’s a tactic not always available to women, who are rewarded for being fresh—a new dress in every photo. It’s the opposite of a journalist’s logic—always on to the new. (This is one reason no one knows who journalists are.)
Poitras’s film also draws its throbbing energy from repetition. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed piles snapshot upon snapshot of Goldin’s travails and tribulations, collected into digestible chapters with heavy, portentous titles (“Merciless Logic,” “The Coin of the Realm”). Unusually, for Poitras, the film never takes its foot off the pedal. Its accumulation of images and aphorisms snowballs toward a climactic release that is almost surprising. Like, oh . . . it worked? Those lofty ambitions weren’t thwarted? Goldin’s journey doesn’t end in tragic reversal?
Marketing prodigies are typically invited to use their talents to boost corporate profits, but there are higher callings for someone gifted in comms. Arthur Sackler may have been among the first-ever inductees of the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame, but Goldin is the latest pioneer in pharmaceutical communications. Among her group P.A.I.N.’s winning slogans: “Pills will kill,” “Sacklers lie, thousands die.” Words can be used to close pocketbooks, not just to open them. (The acronym P.A.I.N.—Prescription Addiction Intervention Now—is an echo, in reverse, of the various patients’ organizations astroturfed by Purdue in the 1990s, which had names like the American Pain Society and the American Pain Foundation.)
Simplicity is key. In a planning session captured by Poitras’s camera, Goldin concludes, “Death is the bottom line—we should do a die-in.” Goldin has always been good at getting people to scream—early audiences for The Ballad would howl at the projector, shrieking in approval or displeasure at each new image. She knows that good stories focus on individuals, that anger needs a target that’s flesh. “It’s personal,” she explains in the film. “I hate these people.” At another point, she sums up her call to action—“Stop taking money from these corrupt evil bastards.” This is the ballad of anti-Sackler activism: brute, acerbic, relentless—a righteous transvaluation of the smears the Sacklers once used to target addicts. (“We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible,” Richard Sackler once wrote. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”)
Goldin, in fairness, has one advantage that younger activists would struggle to match: She’s battle-hardened from her experience during the last plague, the AIDS epidemic. Not coincidentally, she’s also a queer exhibitionist. She shows us that an effective activist is a show queen with a flair for theatrics—a preacher, for example, or a stripper. Someone drawn to exposure, to agitation, to verbal and physical conflagration. The real pros are adept at leveraging sentimentality (another mirror image of the Sacklers, who sentimentalized chronic pain; Goldin sentimentalizes the pain of addiction and withdrawal, a torture she personally suffered, with perfect pitch: “It’s the darkest you can go, the darkness of the soul”).
Queer exhibitionists have a nose for provocation. Often, like Goldin, they’ve grown up in households with lots of screaming. Like her, sometimes they fuck in elevators; they shoplift; they give head to taxi drivers in place of fare. At one point in the film, P.A.I.N.’s Noemi Bonazzi recalls Goldin asking if her career would implode. “I said, ‘Probably. These are very scary, powerful people.’” What Goldin proves, though, is that the Sacklers and their institutional accomplices are paper tigers. Billionaires in the United States are not used to receiving much scrutiny. As a species, they’re maladapted to handle light. The second the organism is exposed, it withers.
Poitras has long been interested in the science of activism, in how information and action can be marshaled in the service of reform. Here she found an answer.
Goldin put the Sacklers on blast, month after month, year after year. No one else did, she reminds us in the film: “Congress didn’t do anything, the Justice Department hasn’t done anything, bankruptcy court left them better than ever. This is the only place they’re being held accountable, and we did it.”
POITRAS IS AN EXPERT ON HERO REBELS, outsiders who take on the system. Many of her films turn out to be studies of masculinity—the gallant computer geek Edward Snowden in Citizenfour (2014); the paternalistic Doctor Riyadh in My Country, My Country (2006); the casually abusive hacker Julian Assange in Risk (2016).
When they’re straight men, many courageous outlaws turn out to be not merely exhibitionists but also alleged sex offenders. The opening sequence of Risk, Poitras’s greatest film, features Assange opening a bottle of beer with his teeth. It’s the kind of image that might have been captured in Goldin’s Ballad, and it neatly encapsulates the viewer’s fraught relationship with Poitras’s subjects and sources, the erotic intrigue, the risk of battery (whether from the government or from others in the dissident community).
Poitras’s heroes are often antiheroes. They let us down in some way. Risk was a brilliantly nuanced portrait of a flawed savior—and almost totally overlooked during the Trump era, when audiences craved simple tales about good and evil. Evidently, Poitras didn’t want a repeat experience with her next project. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Poitras has her perfect hero, a woman, an innocent, an afflicted person of queer experience who combines brass-tacks effectiveness with an instinct for stagecraft.
Her other films call attention to gaps and discomforts—the chasm between the eerie quiet of Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room and the thunderclap of his revelations, the distance separating Assange’s messianic ambitions from his unnerving defects. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, by contrast, is a victory lap, a celebration of a fait accompli. In a way, it borrows more from social media than from Hollywood: It consists of nostalgic portraits, tagging of top friends, trolling, trauma bonding—almost un-mediated. (Unlike in Citizenfour and Risk, Poitras is largely absent from the film; it’s Goldin’s account, and Poitras isn’t leaving comments.) In that way, it’s more didactic, less problematizing. That’s fine; let’s learn from it. Poitras has long been interested in the science of activism, in how information and action can be marshaled in the service of reform. Here she found an answer.
There are important differences between Goldin’s mobilization and the dissidents who struggled against the Bush-era surveillance state. The Sacklers are not the National Security Agency. They’re not the government. They’re mere mortals, like Goldin. We live in an era when institutions are receding and individuals are more important than ever. This retreat of institutional power is apparent across sectors, from political parties to record labels, magazines, and Hollywood studios. Social media is one reason, and while Goldin is barely active across those networks, she has often been accused of inventing the candid Instagram portrait as a major aesthetic tendency back in the ’70s. (Whether institutional power is visibly shrinking in art is a complicated question. A curator told me recently, commenting on Elon Musk, “If Twitter disappeared next week, the impact on the art world would be zero.”)
As it happens, the historical arc of institutional retreat is traced by Poitras via Goldin’s own life. During the artist’s childhood in the ’60s, the state, in collusion with Goldin’s mother, imprisoned Goldin’s sister, declaring her to be mentally ill, ultimately driving her to suicide. When Goldin is an adolescent living with trans roommates in Boston in the ’70s, the police arrest people in the street for wearing the wrong clothes. By the time the opioid epidemic takes root, there are no mental institutions anymore, and people no longer risk arrest for being queer in public, if their skin is light. Fast-forward to the opioid crisis and you’re on your own. There is no state. Or rather, the state is an insurance plan—a payer, not an actor. It will buy you drugs, but it won’t pay for rehab.
At a backyard barbecue in Greenpoint in the summer of 2021, Goldin cornered me near the grill. She wanted me to write about the judge in the bankruptcy case, Robert Drain. No one had done so, and the judge was, in fact, a vulnerable figure, someone specially selected by Purdue through jurisdiction shopping because of his business-friendly reputation. The judge effectively had sole authority to shield the Sacklers’ decabillion-dollar fortune from thousands of lawsuits. Goldin believed he needed to feel the glare of the media spotlight. At the time, I had moved on to other things. I passed. The judge made his ruling. The Sacklers kept their money. We all make our own beds. Most of us are not Nan Goldin, but not because we couldn’t be.
This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Artforum.
Christopher Glazek is a writer based in New York and Mexico City.