ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED Blu-ray Review: Refusing the Blood Money

Laura Poitras’ biography of Nan Goldin has so much more to say about the moral obligations of art and artists in an unhealthy world.

Contributor; Toronto, Canada
ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED Blu-ray Review: Refusing the Blood Money

With auspicious timing, I received my review copy of Criterion's new Blu-ray of All The Beauty and the Bloodshed the morning after an anemic Oscar telecast in which only one "celebrity" (I doubt director Jonathan Glazer is being stopped for autographs in many supermarkets) had the courage to speak openly on stage about the ongoing schism in Palestine. Outside the Kodak Theatre, activists protesting America's ongoing support of the Israeli military effort hoisted signs that read "what good is art that ignores genocide?"

The telecast started five minutes late because Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie's journey to their seats was, at least in part, delayed by the traffic snares caused by the protest, but Hollywood kept a decent lid on that, too. A few other celebs wore red buttons on the red carpet to call for a ceasefire in Gaza; little or none of that messaging made it to air anywhere more mainstream than TikTok.

Now, I don't know that the Academy has, or should have, anything to do with the horrors of American foreign policy or the crisis in the Middle East. The Academy is an arts institution, with a presumed arts-institution mandate around how important art is; but it's also the prima facie artistic shroud in which Hollywood wraps itself, an industry whose actual creative intentions have been clear for over a century. Engaging with the crises of the day ain't it.

And to a larger extent, it's important to bear in mind that arts institutions' mission statements and mandates are, from the top down, often -- almost always -- self-serving and self-aggrandizing lip service. The recent clustercuss in my own Toronto's arts scene around the Art Gallery of Ontario's dismissal of Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush over her statements about -- you guessed it -- Palestine, cannily demonstrates that the sans-serif buzzwords emblazoned on the gallery walls have little or nothing to do with any given arts organization's true mandate, which is usually just to continue to receive the funding that allows the organization in question to exist, regardless of the strings attached to said funding.

These institutes are the benevolent faces of corporate sponsors and monied private individuals, and in a world where many governments can't see fit to fund the arts in any more direct way, maybe that's the only way it can be. It's a gruesome catch-22 about the meaning and value of art in the first place, and these institutions' role and necessity in a healthy and functioning democracy.

All of which brings us back around to All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras' 2022 barn-burner of a documentary. Ostensibly about the life and work of photographer Nan Goldin, the film wraps itself in Nan Goldin's contemporary efforts to rip the benevolent face off at least one of those corporate sponsors: the Sackler family.

The Sacklers, in Goldin and Poitras' thesis, use their funding of art galleries around the world to artwash their family name, occluding their direct corporate responsibility for creating the opioid crisis in the United States, which impacted Goldin's life directly. She describes herself as an "opioid crisis survivor."

The documentary unfolds in two tracks. The modern-day story follows Goldin as she participates in direct action against museums and galleries with Sackler-named wings, rooms, and areas. Empty pill-bottles are strewn in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's fountain to chants of "Sacklers lied, thousands died!" as hapless security guards attempt to shoo the activists out of the area. The atrium in the Guggenheim is overcome by a blizzard of leaflets as activists throw documentation of the Sacklers' culpability over the balcony railings. Activists lie "dead" on the floor to commemorate the losses as opioid addictions ravaged the country.

Goldin has founded an organization called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) that targets the Sacklers through their philanthropy, and we watch the work of this organizing as it takes place throughout the film. The premise that Goldin may damage or even lose her career in the service of this work is omnipresent in these sections, as Goldin attacks the very galleries that have made her livelihood.

There are talking heads throughout these portions, describing the rise of valium and oxy as the most profitable drugs in the world, and how the Sacklers -- who own Purdue Pharma -- have worked to keep their family name philanthropically branded within the art world, fully separate from the pharmaceutical company's name and reputation. P.A.I.N.'s advocacy works to shatter this buffer between the art world and the moral implication of the Sackler wealth. The arts organizations are the entities that Goldin wants to trap in the middle, between their dirty funding and their ostensible moral responsibility towards art and artmaking. Effectively: she's calling them on their mission statements, to see what their true mandates are.

The documentary's second track is the more traditional biography, using Goldin's review of her ever-evolving slideshow of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (among others), a curation of a life's worth of photographs, to narrate Goldin's personal life and artistic career across the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Much of the film is given over to those photos in a succession of slideshows onscreen, and as a fan of Goldin's work this is almost worth the price of admission alone, watching these memories unfold as Goldin muses on her life in the audio track.

The thesis throughout this section -- besides a touching affirmation of the importance of found family -- is that Goldin's work has always uplifted the unvoiced in American culture, and that her work to bring voice to the survivors of the opioid crisis is only the latest leg in a life's journey where the personal and political are inextricable. For me personally, Goldin's photography of queer subcultures and sex work during the AIDS crisis is foundational artistic work that shaped my own career and advocacy.

All The Beauty traces a continuum of Goldin's work as it connects to her P.A.I.N. advocacy. The film may foreground a specific crisis in modern American life, but the thematic question it asks is more broadly applicable. It feels like it underlines the confrontation implied by that protest sign from Oscar night: "what good is art that ignores...?" Ignoring where the money comes from, or what that money is also used for, or the context in which art is made, is becoming a critical question in culture throughout the world.

Supplements on Criterion's Blu-ray include a newly-produced, half-hour interview with Laura Poitras about her collaboration with Goldin; and archival material from the New York Film Festival, where All The Beauty had its premiere, including panel discussions with Goldin and the filmmakers. I wonder who sponsored NYFF that year.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

  • Laura Poitras
  • Nan Goldin
  • David Velasco
  • Megan Kapler
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Laura PoitrasNan GoldinThe Criterion CollectionDavid VelascoMegan KaplerDocumentary

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