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Galleries of pain

Galleries of pain

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed – Laura Poitras’s award-winning new documentary – tells the story of photographer and activist Nan Goldin and her relentless quest to sever the link between the Sacklers and the art world

Six hundred thousand. That’s the number of people estimated to have died as a result of the opioid epidemic that’s swept America since 1996, the year OxyContin was released.

OxyContin is a painkiller. Or more accurately, it’s the brand name for Oxycodone. It’s an opioid – and a strong one – which means that while it’s effective at relieving chronic pain, it’s also highly addictive. The US Department of Health estimates that 11 million Americans consume OxyContin each year. 

Activists from Pain (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in front of the Pyramid of the Louvre museum in Paris, 2019

The drug was launched by the pharmaceutical company Purdue with an aggressive marketing campaign. From 1996 to 2001 over 40 speaker-training conferences were held across the US. More than 5,000 doctors and pharmacists attended these lavish, all expenses-paid events, where OxyContin’s merits were pushed and its addictiveness played down in order to encourage doctors to prescribe it to patients in need of pain relief.

With lethal precision, Purdue targeted the doctors who prescribed the most opioids, which were usually the ones with the most patients experiencing chronic pain. Doctors began prescribing their patients OxyContin, many of whom soon became addicted. (For a dramatised account of this strategy and its hideous fallout, do watch the eight-part series Dopesick on Disney+.)

Michael Keaton and Kaitlyn Dever in Dopesick

Purdue was primarily owned by members of the Sackler family. In recent years, mainly due to the actions of several journalists and activists, that family name has become synonymous with America’s opioid epidemic. For far longer though, it was one that could be found in museums, art galleries and universities: the Sackler Wing at The Louvre, the Sackler Centre at the V&A, the Sackler Library at Oxford University, the Guggenheim’s Sackler Center for Arts Education, to name just a few. Their philanthropy was prolific. Arthur Sackler, the late family patriarch, was described by one art historian as the “modern Medici.”

It’s an association that, since the actions of Purdue have been made public, has sickened many in the art world. And one artist, Nan Goldin, decided to do something about it. In All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras’s new documentary (and winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award) Goldin’s battle with the Sacklers is captured in all of its righteous ferocity. 

A photographer by trade, Goldin was addicted to OxyContin herself for three years, and leads the charge against the Sacklers’ influence in the art world via Pain (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the organisation she founded. Growing up in a suburb of Boston, Goldin’s childhood was defined in large part by her close relationship with her older sister Barbara, who took her own life when Nan was 11. 

Nan and Barbara Goldin. The sisters were close before the latter’s suicide

By her late teens she had left home and moved to Boston, becoming embedded in the city’s gay and trans communities, with her first show in 1973 focused on the city’s drag queens. Chronicling her life and crusade against the Sacklers’ attempts to whitewash their reputation using the profits from OxyContin, the film recounts some of Goldin’s bleakest moments with heartbreaking intimacy. In one scene, she speaks about abuse she suffered in 1984 at the hands of her partner, after her photography – much of it sexual – provoked a jealous rage. The damage he did, leaving dark bruises around her eyes after he tried to blind her, is shown in her photograph Nan one month after being battered

Nan one month after being battered, 1984

The opioid crisis isn’t the first epidemic Goldin has campaigned against. In 1989, she photographed the fallout from HIV/Aids as it tore through her friends, curating a controversial show in the Artists Space in Downtown New York titled Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.

Pain in Goldin’s wrist led to her being prescribed OxyContin in 2014, which in turn led to her addiction to opioids. Narrowly avoiding death from a fentanyl overdose, she recovered after a stint in rehab. 

 The venom which Goldin directs towards the Sacklers is hardly surprising. “I really hate these people,” she says as she and her fellow Pain activists prepare for a protest at an institution which has taken Sackler money. 

Nan Goldin joins family members of people who have died during the opioid epidemic to protest against a bankruptcy deal with Purdue Pharmaceuticals

After thousands of lawsuits, Purdue was dissolved in 2021, with the Sacklers paying a $4.5 billion court settlement, which, to the anger of those affected, also granted immunity from being held liable for the fallout of the opioid crisis. The only place Pain could hold the Sacklers accountable was in the galleries and museums that take their money, where the activists sweep in en masse, chanting, staging die-ins (gathering on the ground as if dead) and littering the ground with bottles of prescription pills.

It worked – Pain’s activism has sawn away at the family’s link with the art world, with several institutions removing the Sackler name. But the deaths continue, with March 2022 marking the highest annual mortality rate yet. 

All The Beauty and the Bloodshed will be released in UK cinemas on 27 January.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


The Menu (Disney+)

Right from the start of The Menu, when obsessive “foodie” Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his girlfriend Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) hop on the boat to take them to dinner, there’s a palpable sense of menace. They’re headed to Hawthorn, the island-based restaurant owned by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). It isn’t long before things get seriously weird.

Fiennes is brilliantly menacing as Slowik, with Hoult’s character fawning over him throughout. Taylor-Joy shines and the other guests – a selection of the great and the good including a washed-up movie star, a food critic and a gang of young businessmen with an entitled frat-boy attitude – are all hysterically unlikeable. A darkly funny film, it’s a lot of fun.

Matt d’Ancona, this newsletter’s regular author, is off this week. But he left a parting gift in my inbox before he left – a review of the Kaleidoscope (Netflix)

“Interactive” television has been tried before, notably in Netflix’s own Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (see Creative Sensemaker, 24 February 2022). In Eric Garcia’s heist drama series Kaleidoscope, the gimmick is one of chronology: after a short explanatory “Black” episode, you can watch the eight remaining instalments in any order you like. In the correct sequence, they run as follows: Violet (24 years before the heist); Green (seven years before); Yellow (six weeks before); Orange (three weeks before); Blue (five days before); White (the heist); Red (the morning after); and Pink (six months after). But you get to choose; supposedly, there are 40,320 possibilities.

All this is good fun. But Kaleidoscope’s guilty secret is that its real pleasures are to be found in more conventional aspects of the series – principally the lead performance of Giancarlo Esposito as Ray Vernon, AKA Leo Pap, who plots a score-settling raid on the security vault owned by his treacherous former partner Roger Salas (Rufus Sewell), and the removal of $7 billion of untraceable bonds.

Niousha Noor is very good as Nazan Abassi, FBI agent and recovering drug addict; as are Jai Courtney as Bob Goodwin, an unlovely safe cracker, and Rosaline Elbay as Bob’s wife, Judy. But Esposito is the star of the show, entrenching the reputation he earned playing the unforgettable villain Gus Fring in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul as one of the stand-out performers of the prestige television age.


The Creative Act: A Way of Being – Rick Rubin (Canongate)

From someone who’s produced records for some of the biggest names in music – Johnny Cash, Jay Z, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and everyone in between – you’d expect, if not a straight-up memoir, at least plenty of anecdotes. Not so for Rick Rubin. In The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rubin forgoes the stories of what happened in the recording studio and instead lays out how he approaches the creative process. Over 400 pages he imparts his wisdom about how one can live in a permanent state of creativity. 

When I started The Creative Act, I did raise an eyebrow at what was essentially a self-help guide for unleashing your inner artist. Where were the stories of Mick Jagger dangling from a chandelier in Rubin’s Shangri La, Rubin’s Californian recording studio? But Rubin’s advice is delivered pithily and there isn’t the self-aggrandisement that so often comes with self-help books. There’s actually a lot which serves as a useful nudge towards being more creative and productive, especially while on a deadline. Which reminds me …

Lawfare: How Russians, the Rich and the Government Try to Prevent Free Speech and How to Stop Them – Geoffrey Robertson KC (TLS)

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by a crackdown on his own people, imposing prison sentences of 15 years on those who refer to the war as a war, as opposed to a “special military operation.” In the UK we observe this with the comfort of thinking that we live in a country where freedom of speech is the law of the land.

But, as Geoffrey Robertson KC points out, that’s not strictly true. There is no legal protection for free speech in the UK, save parliamentary privilege for our MPs. In Lawfare, Robertson documents how what began as well-intentioned judicial development of privacy laws has allowed the rich and powerful to use the English courts to sue or frighten off the journalists looking to uncover corruption. The case of Catherine Belton – who was sued by four Russian oligarchs and the Russian energy giant Rosneft over her book Putin’s People – is held up by Robertson as one that set a terrifying precedent: “defame Putin and his cronies at your peril”.


Late Developers – Belle and Sebastian

Despite knocking about since 1996, Belle and Sebastian show no signs of slowing down. Hot on the heels of May’s A Bit of Previous, Late Developers is the Glaswegians’ second album in the space of a year. The band has embraced more of a retro sound on their latest LP – best highlighted by the Eighties-esque I don’t know what you see in me. There are worse things to listen to than these 42 minutes of light, melancholic indie pop as you walk to work on a crisp, sub-zero January morning.

CACTI – Billy Nomates

There are few artists around at the moment as fresh and original as the Bristol-based Billy Nomates. On this, her second album, Nomates’ wistful vocals combine with the snarl of guitars to make something pretty special; an angsty, post-punk record without the laddishness which has come to define the genre. Highlights include the title track, saboteur forcefield and the punchy spite – all about attending a party simply out of resentment. Taking her name from the insult directed at her for attending a Sleaford Mods gig on her own, her self-titled debut arrived in 2020 to little fanfare. If you haven’t heard of her, do dive into her back catalogue

Thanks to Andrew Butler, Tortoise’s head of social and PR, for his recommendation of Turn the Car Around by Gaz Coombes

Gaz Coombes has spent his 32-year musical career going from strength to strength, and he’s hit the jackpot with his latest release, Turn the Car Around. A nine-track album that comes in at under 40 minutes leaves no room for filler, and sees Coombes show off his own creative artistry while giving nods to the likes of Tame Impala in ‘Don’t Say It’s Over’ and ‘The Smile in Feel Loop (Lizard Dream)’. Another superb record from one the the UK’s best songwriters.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Have a lovely weekend.

Best wishes,


Photographs courtesy Nan Goldin, Praxis Films, Neon, Searchlight Pictures, Netflix, Getty Images