The idea that illness and injury are political events is a theme that runs throughout the excellent documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, (2022) about the artist & activist Nan Goldin, directed by Laura Poitras. The notion is present in the way that the bold curiosity, creative spirit, and the mental health of Nan’s sister is treated in the repressed suburbia of the 1960s. It’s present in how the current opioid crisis was manufactured, how it is being addressed by those in power and in the fight for accountability and justice being waged by Nan Goldin and many others. The political nature of illness is also seen in the film in the devastation of the New York arts and queer community during the height of the AIDS crisis. We see David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), a multidisciplinary artist whose works often now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, in a ramshackle Lower Eastside apartment kitchen describing how his lack of health insurance is affecting his ability to battle the HIV virus seeking to kill him. It is a heartbreaking scene which would cause the jaws of citizens from more caring rich countries — those that provide universal healthcare — to drop to the floor at the sheer stupidity and callousness of it. The tale is told that we know so well in the US: Every person and, indeed, every life form is expendable, as capital is prioritized over life.
My own experience of this dreadful American truism has not been fatal, but it has been brutal. When I contracted a severe and chronic repetitive stress injury in both forearms in 1993, my job provided neither health insurance nor sick leave. And so, the condition went undiagnosed and untreated — except in the DIY, bargain basement ways that I could figure out at the time. Worse yet, I had to continue to work at my cashier/photocopy shop job, which further aggravated the injuries to an extreme degree. The consequences to my vocation as a guitar-playing musician have been catastrophic and the untreated injuries have degraded my quality of life in myriad other ways, limiting my participation in sports and recreation and my day job options, among other things. Covered now by Illinois Medicaid, I have received a diagnosis 30 years too late and what I am learning about what should have been done for the injuries at the time they occurred boggles my mind. What happened to me, what happens to so many of us and to often fatal degrees, is all unnecessary… unless you consider insane levels of insurance company profit as something “necessary.”
The strength of Nan Goldin and her fellow activists and artists in exposing the moral depravity of the health care and pharmaceutical system in the US is impressive and inspiring, offering us strength to continue in spite of it all.