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Nan Goldin has been named number one in the Art Review Power 100 - quite right too

C on the wall, Bangkok, 1992, by Nan Goldin (Nan Goldin)
C on the wall, Bangkok, 1992, by Nan Goldin (Nan Goldin)

Nan Goldin was working as a go-go dancer in New York in the late Seventies when she realised – thanks to the proprietor of Tin Pan Alley bar, Maggie Smith, who pointed it out – that she was a political artist.

Her most famous bodies of work date from that period; unflinching but loving chronicles of the lives of Boston drag queens and New York’s post-Stonewall queer scene, of drug use and violence in the city’s subcultural underbelly, that explore universal themes of love and sex, domesticity and dependency, pain and performance through the friends in her circle, so often considered outsiders by wider society.

In more recent years, she’s risen to prominence again, with noisy acts of protest against the acceptance by museums and galleries of money from the Sackler family, then principal owners of Purdue Pharma, the company behind the highly addictive drug OxyContin, blamed for America’s ongoing opioid crisis. As a direct result of her activities over the last six years, institutions around the world – including Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the Serpentine and more here in the UK – have handed back or refused Sackler money, and removed the family name from their buildings.

Today, Goldin – who last year was the subject of a searing documentary by the filmmaker Laura Poitras – has been named number one on the annual Art Review Power 100 list, the most prestigious and widely-discussed ranking in the art world. Which is a bit of a surprise, to be honest, but it’s a welcome one.

It is probably worth mentioning that it’s a rarity these days that the top place on the Power 100 goes to someone with actual power, in what we might imagine to be the usual sense of the word. Last year it was occupied by ruangrupa, an Indonesian art collective whose model of inclusive, communal production “disrupt[ed] the normal way of doing things” (even Art Review didn’t seem entirely convinced), while the then-new CEO of Art Basel, still just about arguably the world’s most prestigious art fair, was nowhere to be seen.

Or their moments can be very fleeting indeed – in 2021, a non-human entity, ERC-721 (the Ethereum blockchain specification for an NFT) topped the list, something which seems laughable now. Second place that year went to an American anthropologist Anna L Tsing, whose book on the matsutake mushroom and what it says about the Anthropocene I’m genuinely interested to read, but whom I don’t believe most people in the art world, let alone the rest of us, had heard of before the thing was published (she pops up again this year, at number 18, I really must buy that book)..

 (Nan Goldin)
(Nan Goldin)

If Nan Goldin were genuinely the most ‘powerful’ person in art, I think we’d be in a world that wouldn’t need her sincere, bracing brand of truth-telling. But it’s a bold and encouraging statement that she’s been chosen by the 40-strong secret panel (because can you imagine the trolling they’d get if they weren’t), at the pinnacle of a top ten which, for the first time this year, is entirely made up of artists.

British artist Steve McQueen’s in there (number 8), for his deeply moving film about the Grenfell Tower disaster “as a catalyst for legislative change”; so is the American artist Theaster Gates (7), an artist who combines urban planning and artistic endeavour to revitalise neglected urban neighbourhoods, particularly those which are home to black communities. Simone Leigh (4), also American, makes work that celebrates black women while calling out their historical and continued marginalisation.

These are, as Art Review puts it, “artists who are using their work, and the platform their success provides, to shape communities and push at the boundaries of what making art and sharing it means today.”

Activism in art is a complicated thing, and it’s not always done to particularly great effect. In an interview with me last week, the artist Grayson Perry was scathing about it: “if you’re going to do activism, do it somewhere where it makes a difference, because every single person that ever sets foot in an art gallery is probably going to agree with you,” he said. “You are truly preaching to the converted if you’re making contemporary art about progressive issues.”

It’s true that the people standing at the back of a 40 minute film about climate change in a darkened room at an art gallery have probably thought about it before. But would anyone say that the women whose work makes up Tate Britain’s epic current show Women in Revolt! should have focused on something other than reproductive rights, equal pay and race equality? No, I don’t think so. The work of those artists was a shoulder to the wheel of women’s liberation in the Seventies and Eighties, and look where we are now (with all the usual caveats).

Nan Goldin’s achievement has been immense, even if it were just to precipitate a fundamental shift in how we view the kind of people who should be allowed to fund our major cultural institutions. But it’s more than that — she’s influenced a generation of young artists, showing them how to stand up and be counted, to speak truth to power, to direct their personal experience (Goldin struggled with opioid addiction herself) towards significant change. And for that this accolade feels more than justified.

To read ArtReview's Power 100 in full, visit artreview.com/power-100

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