Sex, Drugs, and . . . Activism?

maria j. bastos-stanek


(fig. 1) Nan Goldin, view of protest against the Sackler Family at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you’re inspired by Nan Goldin’s snapshots of her friends and lovers in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s like me, you might attempt to go looking for the evidence of Goldin’s New York; those undeniably cool cafes, bars, and clubs that cultivated the creative underground; artist-run galleries at the forefront of the Culture Wars; cheap rent. For an outsider looking in, there is little context for Goldin’s bohemian roots. If you’re lucky, though, you might just catch her leading a demonstration with her new group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) at major museums in protest of the Sackler family and their disproportionate influence over the direction of arts funding in the U.S and Europe. Goldin’s turn towards activism allows us as an audience to discover new meaning and significance in her world and her work, specifically her 1985 slideshow exhibition, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

“I survived the opioid crisis” writes Nan Goldin in an op-ed in Artforum. Goldin founded P.A.I.N in response to her personal experience with addiction. P.A.I.N. takes aim at the Sackler family, whose name is now synonymous with the opioid crisis. The Sacklers built their fortune by developing the highly addictive prescription painkiller OxyContin, and used that money to fund arts institutions across the U.S. and Europe. P.A.I.N. carries out their demands—that the Sacklers use their fortune to fund drug treatment and rehabilitation—using direct action tactics inspired by the legacy of ACT UP.

Long before P.A.I.N., Goldin documented drug use in her slideshow, exhibition, and photobook, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, created between 1978 and 1986. The projects consist of a series of snap-shot style photographs of Goldin and her various friends, lovers, and family in and around downtown Manhattan. We see Goldin at parties and bars; inside taxi cabs and bathroom stalls. Goldin’s world of restaurant booths and after-hours bars oozes of anticipation and eroticism.

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(fig. 2) Nan Goldin, Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City, 1980
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency illustrates a culture of promiscuity operating in New York during the 1970s and 1980s. By photographing scenes of drug use, sexual encounters, and other intimacies, Goldin captures her subjects emotional and physical vulnerabilities, their hopes and disappointments, along with her own. When discussing the improvisational qualities of the photographs, Goldin states “I was in the exact same state that I was recording. These were the people I lived with, these were my friends, these were my family, this was myself. . . there was no separation between me and what I was photographing.”[1] Goldin narrates her own life—domestic violence and drug abuse included—and the difficulties she endured in order to live her life with freedom. To mobilize that sort of sensibility into political action, even thirty years later, speaks to the political power of the artist.

Goldin photographs with an aim towards documentation that may seem similar to the practice of live-blogging and other technological exploits of the digital age. What separates Ballad from the deluge of middlebrow ironic images on social media is the sense of sincerity bred from the risk and danger which Goldin and her friends engage in. Goldin’s subjects live their lives in front of the camera, not for the camera. Goldin captures her friends in actions of self-expression or self-destruction. Rarely are Goldin’s subjects without vice—alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. Take, for example, Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City (1980) (fig. 2). Goldin captures a pair of lovers. Monty embraces Rise with the strong arms of pathos. Deep black space and oceanic blues sooth the viewer’s gaze. A porcelain white hand grips sensuously dark hair. Desire mixes with vice. Eroticism surpasses impropriety.

In Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” she writes, “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” [2] Instead of a criticism of art which is primarily concerned with interpretation, Sontag argues that we should seek the pleasures of experiencing art as an autonomous form. Pleasure, she says, doesn’t take a stand. It is not an object for consideration, but rather, a subject.

In an age when art-making veers towards the didactic, Goldin’s photography curiously resists interpretation. Goldin captures a lifestyle that by moral convention would seem perverse or decadent, but which she subdues all judgement. She fully submits to the pull of pleasure, making her photographs seem sincere and normal; the natural outcome of living a life with freedom of action. Goldin’s concern for spontaneity, of capturing fleeting emotions, and the sincerity of a visual diary, eschews a moral response.

It would, though, be a mistake to consider Goldin’s photographs unplanned or overly casual. Goldin employs several techniques to direct the viewer’s gaze. Among them are framing and her expert use of color. Goldin largely photographs indoors under artificial lighting, lending to an intimate atmosphere of unguarded sincerity.

Goldin, Trixie

(fig. 3) Nan Goldin, Trixie on the Cot, New York City, 1979
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

Of course, Goldin isn’t the only artist to identify with the perverse. Diane Arbus, too, with her interest in misfits and outcasts, was also fascinated by those who live in the margins of society. Arbus photographed circus performers, nudists, interracial couples, transgender and sexual outlaws, and strangers made so by her alienating photographic techniques. Arbus’s photographs, too, feature an aurora of melancholy caused by the knowledge of Arbus’s troubled life which ended in suicide in 1971. However, Arbus has enjoyed major critical and commercial success both during her lifetime and after her death, having become the first American photographer to show at the Venice Biennale.

Goldin, on the other hand, is left with the aftermath of social alienation. As drug habits turn into drug addictions, Goldin lays claim to the casualties of a life lived in the margins. In Goldin’s Trixie on the Cot, New York City (1979) (fig. 3), flashes of red dance around the composition, centrally on the floral embroidery of Trixie’s dress, and among a red-hued filter haphazardly fixed onto the studio light hanging above Trixie’s head. This sensuous red contrasts with her ghostly white skin. Affixed to her is a flowing dress, with one arm strap falling below her shoulder. She crosses her legs, drawing attention to her tattered black shoes that highlights the disjunction between figure and environment. The destitute interior and Trixie’s passive demeanor anticipates the drug overdoses that would eventually curtail the scene. As such, Goldin’s work embraces a retrospective mourning that accommodates her incipient political activism.

The ramifications of drug abuse are suggested rather than expressed, however, allowing viewers to discern for themselves a link between Goldin’s past exploits and her current activism. The improvisational aesthetic of Ballad belies to some degree the possibility of consequences. Goldin does not romanticize drug use. She documents her reality, like a diary. And now, with P.A.I.N., she cautions against its aftermath. Rather than erasing the evidence of disorder in a narrative punctuated by the pleasures of parties and love affairs, Goldin incorporates the trauma and violence’s that she and her friends faced. Goldin’s friends risk danger for connection. Even a successful artist can’t escape the grip of her past.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, 1983

(fig. 4) Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

Goldin’s political transformation invests The Ballad of Sexual Dependency with relevance and allows the old to flourish with new meaning. Consider Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City (1983) (fig. 4). Nan lounges with her then lover, Brian. A calm yellow light filters through the window, covering the two figures in the warm hues of a setting sun. The figures lie in a characteristically destitute interior. Brian sits in profile looking out the window with a cigarette locked between his lips. Gentle wisps of smoke spill out around him. A single print hangs tacked to the wall above the bed frame. It is of Brian, cigarette again dangling from his lips. This time he stares directly at the viewer. What else can the audience think, but of that menacing stare, of Goldin’s crumpled body huddled at the opposite end of the bed, and therefore of Brian’s eventual betrayal? In the months after Goldin published Ballad, Brian battered Goldin. She would later document her injuries through the camera, as a way of preventing herself from returning to him.

Unlike Goldin’s early photography, her politics take a sharp stand. Therefore, the theme of transformation can be interpreted through Goldin’s leap from photography towards activism. While photography as an art form is meant to be taken as autonomous form, activism, as it rests in the realm of the political rather than the cultural, is didactic. If Goldin’s art produces an aesthetic response, then her activism produces an ethical one. Goldin engages in a form of auto-didacticism in which she interprets her past for a new generation at the forefront of a new epidemic.


[1] Nan Goldin, “Nan Goldin by Stephen Westfall,” interview by Stephen Westfall, BOMB Magazine, October 1, 1991,

[2] Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 1966), 14.

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