Protest Art of the Opioid Crisis

Updated: Oct 26, 2019

The relationship between the art world and opioids is a curious one that has shifted dramatically over the past 25 years in the United States. Around the turn of the 21st century, the drug OxyContin was created and aggressively marketed by Purdue Pharmaceuticals, a Sackler family owned company. It was claimed that Oxycontin was a revolutionary pain medication that was practically non addictive. During the late 20th century, the Sacklers were known as a philanthropic powerhouse. Prominent sections of museums from the Met to the Louvre to the Tate bear the Sackler name because of their grand philanthropic donations to art organizations.


In the past few years, however, groups have started to stage protests at these Sackler adorned buildings because of their continual acceptance of Sackler family money. In February, a protest was held in the multilevel central rotunda of the Gugenheim museum in New York City which has a Sackler Center for Arts Education. It was led by Nan Goldin and her grassroots organization P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). The demonstration consisted of protesters filling the central balconies of the rotunda and throwing fake Oxycontin prescriptions to rain down on people who were acting as if they had overdosed-- a demonstration that was artistic in its own right.


Nan Goldin is not just an activist, she is a famous photographer who battled an Oxycontin addiction herself. Her experience with Oxycontin emboldened her to form P.A.I.N. once she became clean. She did not stop taking photos even in the depths of her addiction, instead she moved to more autobiographical photos and documented her experience with Oxycontin addiction.

Nan Goldin, Self Portrait 1st Time on Oxy, Berlin, 2014.

Nan Goldin, Dope on My Rug, New York, 2016.


Goldin was consumed by opioids for a couple of years, but the drugs never stopped her from photographing.


Goldin’s art can be interpreted as protest art in some form, but other artists have used their art as a much more direct attack against Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Dominic Esposito constructed a giant metal spoon with a burn in its basin and placed it outside Purdue Pharmaceutical’s Stamford headquarters. While Purdue Pharmaceuticals does not have a direct hand in the use and circulation of heroin, many people who develop an addiction to heroin first became dependent on opioids via a legal prescription.


Dominic Esposito’s forged steel spoon sculpture, Stamford 2018


The Sacklers, once a family renowned for their generous philanthropic donations to art organizations, are now being protested by artists and their art forms. The Sacklers and their money are slowly being pushed out of the very world in which they formerly stood atop a pedestal.


By Victoria Eavis


Victoria is a rising senior at Duke University majoring in Cultural Anthropology and minoring in Neuroscience. Victoria believes that some of the overlap between Cultural Anthropology and Neuroscience manifests in the opioid crisis: Insight into the chemical alterations opioids cause in one’s brain is a helpful route to understand and empathize with the other, a cornerstone of cultural anthropology. Understanding others and graceful communication with others is not just what Victoria studies, but what she strives for. Last summer, she worked for a nonprofit and became even more invested in helping those affected by the opioid crisis than she was before, so Pilleve is an exciting next step. Part of Victoria’s investment in helping those bound by the grips of the opioid crisis comes from watching some of her loved ones become addicted to opioids in ways that could have been thwarted had Pilleve been in the picture. On a more artistic note, she always has a camera on her. Whether it’s a 35mm film camera, a digital camera, or a large format camera and a tripod, she loves taking photos as a hobby or in her work.

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