'All The Beauty And The Bloodshed': Why Nan Goldin's Activism Matters

by Christina Donoghue on 2 March 2023

Writer Christina Donoghue went to see the Barbican's re release of the award-winning documentary All The Beauty and The Bloodshed. She shares her thoughts on why Nan Goldin's activism is just as important now as it was in the '90s.

Writer Christina Donoghue went to see the Barbican's re release of the award-winning documentary All The Beauty and The Bloodshed. She shares her thoughts on why Nan Goldin's activism is just as important now as it was in the '90s.

Opioid-involved overdose deaths rose from 21,089 in 2010 to 47,600 in 2017. As of 2021, the reported figure stood at 80,411; a number that almost doubled in four years alone. Two years on, and the figure is even more eye-wateringly dire. Carfentanil is a synthetic opioCarfentanil is a synthetic opioid drug that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine, making it 100 times more powerful than the already dangerous opioid, fentanyl. America is at a breaking point, and the art world's favoured donors - the Sackler family - are not only at the centre of the crisis; they are the crisis.

From what I'd heard, seen and read, Laura Poitras's Oscar-nominated documentary All The Beauty And The Bloodshed triumphantly dedicated itself to artist Nan Goldin's battle against America's Billionaire pharmaceutical families. Acting, in part, to help her fight in addressing the country's opioid pandemic, tearing, devastating, and ripping apart families, one death at a time.

Nan Goldin staging a 'die-in' at the Harvard Art Museums. Photo: TW Collins.

This portrait is accurate enough, but Poitras's poignancy is deeper here. There is more to this intimate, romantic, dark and dizzying documentary than any trailer or write-up could convey. Instead, the subject encompassed many battles fought by the artist throughout her lifetime, both with and without drugs. Only at the end does the viewer learn that the documentary takes its name from details included in a psychiatric report about Goldin's older sister Barbara, where the report describes 'all the beauty and the bloodshed' of her torment. Barbara killed herself when she was a teenager; Nan Goldin was just 15.

Another piteous battle fought details a time when Goldin collaborated with artist David Wojnarowicz for her exhibition catalogue that accompanied her 1989 Artists Space-curated exhibition in New York, Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. The show had one aim, to bring AIDS to the attention of America through art that pierced with a freshly retouched blade. In a stealthily searing essay included by Wojnarowicz in the catalogue, the artist wrote venomously about the city's right-wing policymakers who supported legislation that discouraged safe sex practices while also referring to the Archbishop of New York Cardinal O'Connor as a 'fat fucking cannibal in a black skirt'. In response, John Frohnmayer, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chairman, withdrew the NEA's $10,000 exhibition grant. Wojnarowicz died of Aids two years later, at age 37.

Goldin herself was prescribed OxyContin for pain relief - something noted throughout the film - and she became addicted to the drug almost immediately. In the following years of her recovery, the artist founded the advocacy organisation P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to challenge the 'reputation laundering' of the Sackler name through hefty donations to museums and galleries. Protests included lobbying empty prescription table bottles outside of such institutions before lying down in the mess, 'playing dead' to the press who captured the moments; fear has never been part of Goldin's vocabulary, either creatively or personally.

David Wojnarowicz

In an interview, director Poitras spoke about collating multiple storylines into one of activism with the Whitney Museum of American Art, mainly in conjunction with her work that attacked galleries for receiving Sackler-donated funds. 'I knew that the Sackler throughline was essential', she acknowledged. 'Then quickly I learned about the activism she did during the AIDS crisis, and I knew immediately that those two things had to converge in the film, that that was the convergence moment. I wanted to put them in dialogue for several reasons, one being the historical amnesia we have in this country. We forget, and we need to remember AIDS, we need to remember those we lost, we need to remember those who struggled, and to keep their memories alive. That was really important. I was kind of obsessed with these actions she was doing with museums, and I was obsessed with the failure of our government and the failure of the judiciary system, and yet here it was in these cultural spaces where there was emotional reckoning. That feels so essential to me, to be able to tell that story and to document it.'

Goldin's story is one of loss, struggle, addiction, activism, art and love; when all six are cornered together in the name of protest, something unimaginably powerful can happen. Above all, this is about her fight to purge one family's name from the art world, and Goldin's own previous addiction at the hands of the Sackler family's profits makes this a necessary watch. This is about truth. It's about art as truth and activism as a vehicle to make sure the truth is heard. Fast forward to 2023, and the Sackler family name has been taken out of the majority of art's most esteemed establishments, including Saatchi Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate, Guggenheim, the Louvre and New York's Museum of Modern Art.


After premiering at the Venice International Film Festival, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed became the second documentary ever to win the Golden Lion. It has received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and an Oscar nomination. Both ceremonies will take place later this month.



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