All the Beauty and the Bloodshed Shows Artists’ Power to Confront Capitalism

Laura Poitras’s new documentary depicts photographer Nan Goldin’s efforts to stop the Sackler family, architects of the opiate epidemic, from reputation-laundering through art patronage. In a rarity in an age of corporate unaccountability, Goldin succeeds.

In footage from All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, protesters demonstrate against the Sackler family at the Louvre in Paris. (Neon, 2022)

Patronage of the arts by social elites has a deep history. Artwork itself has functioned as an asset class since before capitalism, while the funding of arts institutions has helped the wealthy cement their social status. For the modern rich, support for the arts has long been a favored means of laundering tarnished reputations. Prior to the recent round of sanctions and asset freezes, the Russian superrich gave generously to arts institutions. In 2008, David Koch donated $100 million for the renovation of Lincoln Center.

And then there are the Sacklers, the billionaire family behind Purdue Pharma and the drug OxyContin, both widely blamed for the ongoing opioid epidemic. Some of the most lavish arts benefactors on the planet, the Sackler family has given massive sums to many of the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries. Perhaps most notably, the family name long adorned a wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art housing the Temple of Dendur (featured memorably in When Harry Met Sally). For a time, these arts investments granted the family an elevated cultural status even as its drugs immiserated millions.

The Oscar-nominated documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, directed by Laura Poitras, depicts the efforts of photographer Nan Goldin to hold the Sackler family accountable. A star in the art world, Goldin rose to prominence with her 1985 slideshow and subsequent book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a collection of photographs intimately and unwaveringly depicting the lives of bohemians, artists, and drug users in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “What interests Goldin,” Hinton Als wrote in 2016, “is the random gestures and colors of the universe of sex and dreams, longing and breakups — the electric reds and pinks, deep blacks and blues.”

In the film, Goldin recounts how she was prescribed OxyContin for surgery and became quickly addicted. After years of abuse, she overdosed on fentanyl. Goldin survived and eventually got clean. She lays her experience, and that of others, at the feet of the Sackler family. As she wrote in Artforum in 2018, “The Sackler family and their private company, Purdue Pharma, built their empire with the lives of hundreds of thousands. The bodies are piling up.”

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is both a personal reckoning and an activist project. It documents how Goldin, along with a group she founded in 2017 called Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), worked to loosen the Sacklers’ grip on the art world.

Recently, criticism of the art world as hopelessly beholden to capitalism has become earsplitting. In 2021, internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei declared that the contemporary art world has now been entirely subsumed under capitalism. In a recent review, Catherine Liu and Drake Tyler contend that art’s capture by capitalism is the message behind Todd Field’s film Tár: “art is in thrall to money, and is thereby deformed.” But Goldin and P.A.I.N showed that the fight isn’t quite over, demonstrating the power of artists to directly confront the capitalist class. Yet this is not a story of the power of art. Rather, the film illuminates how artists, organizing and deploying their own culture capital, can productively confront capitalism by exposing and condemning the largely unquestioned pact between money and art.

The Dusk Descends

The documentary interlaces the story of Goldin’s activism and her biography as an artist. It recounts Goldin’s escape from an authoritarian home following her older sister’s suicide and her eventual discovery of photography at Satya Community School, an alternative high school in Lincoln, Massachusetts. There she met David Armstrong, who became a lifelong friend and a photographer in his own right. With Armstrong, Goldin found her way to New York and to the No Wave scene of the late 1970s that served as the backdrop for her most recognized work.

In the company of other Bowery countercultural figures like writer and actor Cookie Mueller and filmmaker Vivienne Dick, Goldin found her artistic voice in portraying the lives of those in the scene. But Goldin’s images of the period captured a world at the verge of collapse. The scene would be decimated by the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Muller and many of those featured in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency would die of the disease.

The crisis also offered Goldin her first encounter with activism. In late 1989, Goldin curated a show on HIV/AIDS at Artists Space called Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. Featuring the work of friends and fellow artists including David Wojnarowicz, who would die of the disease in 1992, the exhibition sought to depict “the effects of AIDS as a metaphor for the evolution of the gay aesthetic.” But the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a sponsor of the event, withdrew its support, citing the exhibit’s political nature.

ACT UP, the HIV/AIDS advocacy group founded in 1987, protested the withdrawal, writing, “We believe it is important to confront and protest this attempt by the NEA to marginalize communities living with the AIDS crisis and limit the accessibility of artistic expression which may be critical of public officials.” The NEA, under duress, subsequently relented and released the money.

Goldin has said that ACT UP served as a crucial inspiration for P.A.I.N.

Then They’ll Pile Up the Bodies

The second strain of the film follows the contemporary actions Goldin and P.A.I.N. held at various museums and galleries bearing the Sackler name. The film begins with a die-in at the Sackler wing of the Met. Another action takes place in 2019 at the Guggenheim, where Goldin’s art is part of the permanent collection. During the Hilma af Klint exhibition, members of the group rained pill bottles down from the upper galleries while others staged a die-in on the ground floor. Another event protested the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard.

Thrillingly, the film recounts a stunning set of victories that followed from P.A.I.N.’s activism. In 2019, London’s National Portrait Gallery refused a £1 million grant from the Sacklers. In the years since, the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and other institutions followed suit. In 2021, the Met removed the Sackler name from multiple spaces, including the wing housing the Temple of Dendur. In 2022, the Guggenheim removed the Sackler name from its education center.

In 2021, in a move that Goldin alleges was done to allow the Sackler family to escape further litigation, Purdue Pharma was dissolved in a bankruptcy settlement. A condition of the settlement stipulated that the family would pay $4.5 billion over nine years to settle lawsuit.

Perhaps most satisfyingly, the film depicts the outcome of a legal ruling mandating that members of the Sackler family witness victim testimony. Viewers are treated to stunning footage of Goldin and other P.A.I.N. activists watching a Zoom call in which David, Richard, and Theresa Sackler sit through testimony on the human toll of the opioid epidemic. In an age when elites are extensively cloistered, it’s bracing and deeply satisfying to witness billionaires’ palpable discomfort as they’re confronted with the human cost of their exploitation. One speaker in the proceedings describes herself as a “survivor of your monumental greed.”

Understood from the perspective of movement building, Goldin’s ultimate challenge to the capitalist class isn’t a critique leveled by artwork itself, a tactic with arguably diminishing value. Rather, her strategy is confrontational activism that places real pressure on the art world to answer for its ties to elites. While many artists have tolerated (or, in many cases, even courted) the financialization of art and the patronage of the arts to repair tarnished reputations, Goldin’s work demonstrates the surprising power cultural figures wield when they refuse to play capitalism’s game. As she says, “The message is stronger when it’s coming from inside the house.”