Ben Burbridge’s “Paradise Lost,” is a thoughtful essay contextualising Nan Goldin’s work in relation to shifts over the last 20 years in the ways that we present our subjectivity publicly via photography. The piece is especially useful in synthesising the recent literature on spectacle, display and voyeurism in relation to rapid changes in digital culture. It deepens my thinking around Goldin’s work, providing further back-up for my own irritation at the unquestioning cult of Nan that persists among many photography students, as well as the lack of criticality in much of the literature around her work, and Goldin’s own annoying insistence on the transparency of her project. It also provides astute analysis of other supposedly self-disclosing practices that have followed in Goldin’s wake. From the perspective of the present, it certainly appears that Goldin’s practice embodies an uncritical exhibitionism that feeds directly into the culture of self-exposure and narcissism so rampant in today’s increasingly commercialised culture, as exemplified by social media sites like Instagram and Facebook.
And yet, there are a few aspects of Goldin’s work—particularly her early work—that deserve to be drawn out further in relation to their original context. It is important to recall that Goldin’s work emerged at a very particular moment in the mid-1980s, when the terms of debate were strikingly different. Goldin’s work is typically read in relation to its content, the human drama and emotion of its colourful subcultural subjects (including, of course, Goldin herself). And certainly Goldin’s work takes place primarily on an affective register—this is exactly why audience responses are so strong, whether positive or negative. However, the work emerged onto the New Yorkart scene at a moment when visual art was being interpreted through a lens of critical theory, placing the onus of meaning-making on the viewer rather than the author. Craig Owens famously wrote of an “allegorical impulse” in contemporary art, in which works of art not only provide a surface meaning, but also the potential for layers of representational critique. Or consider the following quote from Kate Linker’s influential 1983 essay, “Representation and Sexuality”, summarising the critical reception of contemporary art that seemed to follow logically in the wake of French poststructuralist theory: “Against the expressionist model, based on an expressive self and an empathetic reader, who reduplicates preconstituted messages, recent theory has proposed a reader who is positioned to receive and construct the text, a historically formed reader shaped in and through language.” These critical models map neatly onto conceptual works by artists such as Barbara Kruger or Victor Burgin incorporating text and images—often appropriated from mass media. But at the time they were also applied with great enthusiasm to works with more ambiguous, expressive affects. Key to both Owens’ and Linker’s arguments is the idea that the viewer activated by critical theory has the agency to insert an element of critique into the work. Thus s/he might, for example, choose to read Richard Prince’s Cowboys as a critique of originality, or Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills as a commentary on the construction of femininity within cinema. It is important to note that both Prince and Sherman—like Goldin—are notoriously anti-intellectual in interviews around their work, a fact which did not stop critics from reading their work in critical terms at the time. Now that the culture of contemporary art no longer valorises critique as much as it did, some of these readings have fallen by the wayside, but at the time they were inescapable. As art was framed by the academy and institutions of the day, the viewer was intended to “receive and construct” the work as a message about the culture. Clearly not all works could sustain this kind of reading, but for many Goldin’s did.
What was the critical ‘work’ Goldin’s pictures were seen to be doing, or inviting us to do? The politics of representation was a key area of cultural inquiry at the start of Goldin’s career—and indeed remains so. In particular, Goldin participated in the project of bringing underrepresented individuals and groups into the spotlight, not merely as victims, but as people. The point is not just to puncture the normativity of western patriarchy (“épater la bourgeoisie”), but to provide a radical, empowering visibility to the marginalised, in direct contrast with mass media representations. It was key to the reading of Goldin’s work that her subject position was located within the world that she represented. The reading of Goldin’s work as ‘political’ in this way was confirmed by her inclusion in the 1993 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, an exhibition that is read as having been the high-water mark of identity politics as a driving force in contemporary art.
I would not want to reduce Goldin to some kind of single-issue artist. Her work addresses many aspects of life, in complex ways that are arguably, but not unproblematically feminist, pro-gay, pro-difference, etc. However, if I needed to defend her project in terms of its political impact, I would turn immediately to her documentation of her friends living with and dying of HIV/AIDS. Now that there are treatments, if not a cure, for the virus it is easy to forget the terror and hysteria that accompanied its early days. The HIV/AIDS epidemic started killing people in New York Cityin the late 1970s, but it was not observed clinically until 1981, and the nature of its transmission was not even partially understood until 1986. American society had no idea what to do about the ‘gay plague’ and newspapers reported stories of victims losing their jobs, their homes, their health insurance, their dignity and their rights to the panic generated by this ignorance. No wonder the slogan of activist group ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, founded in 1987) was “SILENCE=DEATH”. The mass media representation of AIDS was primarily of isolated homosexual and drug-using victims, dying and dead. Simon Watney has argued that such imagery presented the unconscious message that AIDS was a stigma brought on by the victims’ own depravity. In this context, Goldin’s pictures of her friends living, as well as dying, with HIV, are undeniably potent. The rhetorical framing of Goldin’s broader project as a kind of family album serves to knit the cast of characters together as a community, underlining their loving, supportive relationships. Crucially, Goldin pictured death and dying with the exact same anti-skilled, over-saturated pictorial lyricism that she used to depict living and loving. This is why her memorial images are so moving: Cookie at Vittorio’s funeral (1989), Sharon with Cookie in her Casket (1989), or Gotscho kissing Gilles [on his deathbed] (1993). Goldin was uniquely suited to make such images; combining shock with empathy was something she had elevated to an art form before the epidemic even struck. In political terms to document these individuals, in this way, at this time, and to place it on the walls of museums and commercial galleries was an important thing to be doing, exhibitionism with a purpose and a goal. We cannot ever know exactly how attitudes shift, but I would place Goldin’s practice firmly within the nexus of cultural forces that contributed to changes in public perception that ultimately impacted the media representation of HIV/AIDS as well as public policy and the funding of medical research.
This is only one aspect of Goldin’s practice. Tellingly, her work was also included in the 1995 Whitney Biennial, which was read critically as a backlash to politics in art, a return to “ambiguity, sensuousness and quirkiness”. Had Goldin’s work changed so much in two years? Of course not, but the work has a multi-valence that allows it to be read equally well in aesthetic as political terms. Burbridge makes reference to Goldin’s skill as an image-maker. I would go so far as to call her—along with Jeff Wall—a key pioneer of the photographic pictorialism that was to flourish over the 1990s. In opposition to Wall’s small grain and all-over-focus, Goldin championed large grain, blur and over-saturated hues in her large cibachromes, analogous to the shift in black and white aesthetics ushered in by the expressionism of Robert Frank’s The Americans. It is important to say that Goldin’s work is not just about its content. It is about the experience of the viewer: pleasure, desire, longing, empathy, pain and disgust. It is too easy to say that the kinds of ‘feelings’ that the work evokes (and it clearly has its devotees) merely collapse into the mechanics of the market. Goldin is not merely purveying unmediated slices of experience. I would argue that she crafts fictions that, at their best, move us to reconsider what we know about ourselves. Rather than focus onNan the naïve recorder, it might be helpful to think about Nan Goldin as a narrator with various formal and conceptual strategies at her disposal. Despite her repeated emphasis on the former role, we have the freedom as viewers to focus on the latter. This freedom may have been granted to us by the theoretical turn of the late 1980s and early 90s, but is no longer necessarily to be mobilised solely in pursuit of politicised readings. Is it not possible that photography, like literature, might be able to present versions of the self that might be revealing constructions rather than failed stabs at truthful self-presentation? I partly like this way of reading photographs because it gives value to the work of the imagination, which in a ‘post-privacy’ age is one of the last domains with some resistance to commercialisation.
When Goldin started working, photography had practically no presence in the commercial art market, and colour photography even less so. Riding on the rising tide of photography’s fortunes, Goldin’s large-edition works must have made her millions. Her work has changed along with her lifestyle and milieu.
Whether we choose to regard them as transparent documents or constructed representations, her insider images from the vantage point of success are certainly different from her images of life on the subcultural fringe. Perhaps Goldin’s later work fits in better with Burbridge’s analysis. I remember noting a shift in my own response to her work in the mid-nineties when I saw Breakfast in Bed, Hotel Torre de Bellosguardo, Florence (1996), a sumptuous still-life that seems to shout ‘look at lucky me!’ while prefiguring the millions of meals now displayed daily on social media sites. Goldin’s relationship to many of her subjects has shifted over time as well. Having sex in front of the lens of a famous photographer—like the four couples in Goldin’s 2000-2001 slide piece Heartbeat—is certainly an exhibitionistic thing to do, and in a way that feels quite different from the self-presentation of the individuals in the early work. Now that Goldin is a global star (and decades older) she can still show young people having sex, but it is much more difficult for her as a narrator to enunciate the work from a subject position that is convincingly intimate rather than voyeuristic. The viewer has to work that much harder to suspend disbelief in the way that fiction requires.
How do we understand and know ourselves, how do we present ourselves, how do we pursue any kind of authenticity when we know that all our actions take place in the arena of advanced capitalism? With regard to the politics of exhibitionism we might consider the transmedia phenomenon The Hunger Games, originally a cycle of novels for young adults, exploring a girl’s attempt to survive—and ultimately overthrow—a totalitarian state. Katniss Everdeen’s journey is negotiated almost entirely via public display. Her experience of herself as a private person is deeply eroded by the fact that she must perform a likeable version of herself to viewers of a nationally televised reality show—or die. Her self-presentation is a fiction-within-a-fiction, the edges of which are problematically blurred. As a work of literature, The Hunger Games trilogy is highly commercial, yet it provides one of the most trenchant critiques I have encountered of the ways that we now perform, and even anticipate performing, our selves via social media. This indicates to me that a work of art can spark valuable glimmers of self-recognition for our post-privacy age even as it folds cynically straight back into the system.
Some of Nan Goldin’s work is self-indulgent, exploitative or sensationalistic in the way that it presents subjectivity. It always has been. But this has not prevented it from being relevant and politically charged. Is the work politically active in its exhibitionism or merely quiescent? It depends upon what you bring to it, and which phase of her long career you choose to examine. The poststructuralist line on identity as constructed and performed has a silver lining. Yes, we are the products of coercion and compulsion, but at the same time we are creatures of choice with some degree of agency in how we choose to show ourselves and how we choose to perceive others. Goldin is a key figure in photography in the twenty-first century because her work models this version of reality so well.