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Opinion | Alice Lloyd

Tainted money and the timeless twisted morality of noblesse oblige

Photographer Nan Goldin (right) taking a cell phone photo during a demonstration at the Sackler Art Museum, because the Sackler family is the founder of a pharmaceutical company that has made vast profits selling opiods. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It sounded like a scene from a darkly comic novel. But the subtle sort of scene that would offend more readers than it would probably amuse in our highly sensitive age.

At its center was Nan Goldin, the fine art photographer and a leading opponent of the Sackler family, whose pharmaceutical fortune — Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma produced, to immense profit, the dangerously addictive and widely prescribed painkiller OxyContin — funds fine arts exhibitions, like Goldin’s. That is, until she has her say. She refused to participate in a retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery over a £1 million Sackler grant the gallery then declined. The Tate Modern, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have since followed suit. Each has cut ties with the family, rejecting further funding from them.

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But, anyway, here’s the scene: Goldin’s work was featured in a well-received photography exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums last summer amid rising protests of Harvard’s use of the Sackler name. (President Lawrence Bacow recently said that the university wouldn’t scrub the Sackler name from the half-dozen halls and buildings that bear it, or give back any oxy-tainted blood money.) She led a protest in the museums’ atrium that summer, shortly after the show opened. While dozens of members of her group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and medical students sympathetic with their cause chanted “Shame on Sackler!,” held up signs that said the same, threw pill bottles on the floor, and passed out pamphlets, her work hung in a nearby gallery for all to enjoy.

This scene stuck with me — it cuts to the black heart of what everyone knows but few feel comfortable saying above a whisper in mixed company: For anyone in the arts, academia, and even in print media these days, there’s no avoiding the shadow of whatever capitalist sin actually impels your billionaire benefactor’s noblesse oblige.

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Nan Goldin is much more hero than hypocrite here. Shaming the Sacklers is worthy work: They made billions while hundreds of thousands died from a drug they’d been misled to believe was safe. Thanks in part to Goldin and the anti-Sacklerites she leads, philanthropic efforts to elevate and separate the family from its fortune’s ugly origins have failed.

Goldin’s protests, and the scale of their success, add something new to a very old story: A family amasses a fortune by luck, hard work, and unconscionable greed, leaving its inheritors sapped of any deeper drive or sense of purpose, and then seeks salvation from moral vacuity and the vague torment that comes with it — as a prelude to eternal damnation, perhaps — by trying, and probably failing, to make meaning of all that money. Or, as the late patriarch Arthur Sackler told his children before he died, “Leave the world a better place than when you entered it.” Plutocrats with guilty consciences and their imperfect attempts at redemption have been funding the arts and education for as long as there have been men — some women, but mostly men — making way too much money.

The great American capitalists prove this pattern particularly well. About a century before Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple founder Steve) set up her altruistic LLC, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s unmatched wealth was such a burden that he dedicated the last two decades of his life to giving it all away: He funded education, research, and the arts, and remarked in 1914, at the opening of a public library, “When I go for a trial for the things done on earth, I think I’ll get a verdict of ‘not guilty’ through my efforts to make the earth a little better than I found it.” He was hardly the first to think this way. Maecenas — the benefactor of poets Virgil, Horace, and Catullus — considered their patronage his moral duty, as one of the richest men in Rome. Giotto’s patron, the unscrupulous and vastly rich moneylender Enrico Scrovegni, commissioned the painter’s seminal chapel frescoes reputedly to atone for his crimes and those of his father, whom Dante worryingly depicted in the Seventh Circle of Hell. Likewise, there might not have been any Botticellis for J.P. Morgan to buy if the Medicis — that corrupt clan of Renaissance bankers and popes — hadn’t made it their business to commission paintings from Florence’s finest artists.

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In light of which history, refusing or returning the Sacklers’ money on moral grounds seems too small a gesture. Do relish, if it helps you, the fact that they’ll always be remembered for the opioid epidemic, not the museum wing. Take heart that their noblesse oblige definitely isn’t paying out, in other words. But, one wonders — and only God knows — has noblesse oblige ever actually saved a much-too-rich person’s soul? And since when should its beneficiaries be the ones to make that measurement?

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A museum or university’s responsibility requires that the institution survive: Museums, libraries, and schools have to outlast the passing demands of our highly sensitive age, for instance, so that the beauty and wisdom they hold will remain for the benefit of whoever follows. What are museums for if not the witness and preservation of human culture, what with its dense tangle of unpayable debts, decadent ironies, and those darkly comic complications? The protesters have made their mark, but the museums might as well take the money. It only takes a quick look through world history to realize that the final judgment won’t come from us. Nor will it come from Nan Goldin, for that matter.


Alice Lloyd is a writer in Washington, D.C., and was previously a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.