The Human Condition, the Museum, and OxyContin

by Sumeja Tulic

February 15, 2019

Slips of paper prepared by The Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) at the protest at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on February 9, 2019. Courtesy of the author.

One finds herself at a place, at a time, and in motion because of chance, invitation, or a sense of an obligation. I stood before the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum last Saturday because of all three. By chance I happen to know someone who invited me to do something I believe I was obliged to do.

So there I was, in line to enter the museum with pockets full of paper slips. One side of the paper slips, in red, capital letters, said “Shame on Sackler” undersigned by PAIN. The other side was a photocopy of a page from a doctor’s prescription pad, communicating that Richard Sackler, M.D., of Perdue Pharma prescribed Solomon R. Guggenheim endless refills of 80 mg of OxyContin. A quotation, seemingly from Sackler, a principle owner of Purdue and the company’s former Chairman and President served as the written “prescription” to be filled: “Increase prescription by convincing doctors that opioids provide ‘freedom’ and ‘peace of mind’…make patients ‘more optimistic’ and ‘less isolated.’”

According to a previously received text message, at a signal, these paper slips were to be thrown from the top floor of the Guggenheim. And so they were, shortly after 6:30 PM, on February 9, 2019. They flew from the highest walkway and every level below, down the rotunda until they reached the ground floor of the museum.

Slips of paper,prepared by The Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), thrown from Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum rotunda for the protest at the museum on February 9, 2019. Courtesy of the author.

The Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, prepared the slips of paper. The photographer Nan Goldin, who has recovered from a past addiction to OxyContin, which she was first prescribed following a surgery, founded the group. PAIN describes itself as a gathering of artists, activists, and people dealing with addiction who use direct action to fight the opioid crisis and its main instigators. “We target the Sackler family, which manufactured and pushed OxyContin, through museums and universities that carry their name,” read leaflets that are distributed at their events. PAIN demands that all museums, universities, and educational institutions that have benefited from their philanthropy remove the Sackler title and signage, refuse their funding, and publicly disavow them. Currently, the Guggenheim’s educational facilities are endowed by the Sacklers and carry their name.  

A lawsuit filed last month by the Massachusetts attorney general revealed that the Sackler family has been aware of the addictive nature of OxyContin for years but intentionally misled doctors and patients about the dangers this aggressive opioid painkiller posed. It has been reported that in the past eighteen years at least 400,000 overdoses related to prescription opioids were registered in the United States.

The Guggenheim’s spiral ramp, described on the museum’s website as “a true ‘temple of spirit,’” served as the venue for PAIN’s direct response to a 1996 statement by Richard Sackler, the son of one of Perdue’s founders, in which he predicted “a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition” would follow the launch of OxyContin. But more than just being a response, the Guggenheim protest was also what Hannah Arendt defined as “action.”

In Arendt’s book The Human Condition (1958), she made a distinction between three sorts of activity: labor, work, and action. While Arendt sees “labor” as an endless effort directed at accomplishing self-preservation and reproduction, work has a defined beginning and end. It results in an object that transcends the space and time of its production and becomes part of the inhabited world. Unlike the essentially futile and tedious labor and the object-oriented endeavor of work, it is through action, in speech and deeds, that humans reveal themselves to others. In doing so, humans actualize freedom, the beginning of something new and unexpected, in public, understood as a context defined by plurality. 

Even though actions usually reveal to others what remains hidden to its agent, as Arendt has denoted, the agent, still can experience a form of knowledge that manifests as pure emotion. A lot can be learned about the human condition and its paradoxical human plurality, comprised of multitudes of unique beings, by deconstructing and reflecting upon these emotions.

As a foreigner living in this country in 2019, I felt something similar to fear while clutching the papers I was to toss down the Guggenheim’s spiral, after finding a position far enough from the museum guards patrolling the floor. Simultaneously, I remembered other times I participated in other actions, some even far more contrary to the rules, like blocking traffic and marching down an avenue in Belgrade with fellow protesters, hours after the Belgrade Pride celebration was forbidden by the government. I recalled walking, and carrying part of the pride banner, and thinking of all the other places in the world where the right to assembly and freedom of expression were accomplished decades ago. If they could protest then and achieve progress, so can we now, I thought.  The “now” in the Guggenheim was a strange moment: more of the past than of the present. A deja vu of a sort; an experience of an ideal not entirely living up to its promise. I thought protesting in New York had long ago relinquished its ties to fear.        

Slips of paper prepared by The Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) for the protest at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on February 9, 2019. Courtesy of the author.
Slips of paper prepared by The Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) for the protest at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on February 9, 2019. Courtesy of the author.

Anyone with a foreign passport in this country risks deportation as a possible outcome for acts of dissent. But one persists at being and at acting despite this potential, because the desire to reveal, to act upon a secret so that it becomes part of the truth, is stronger than anything else. To reveal oneself in a museum, while feeling afraid and excited, is wonderful. The exhilaration reveals the museum to be the place where some of us—foreign, and with the privilege of having enough money or the right kind of credentials—enter to experience the promise for which we have left our homelands. As another immigrant, Vilém Flusser, puts it in his writing on new forms of imagination, the museum transfigures as an “imaginary world” that is transposed between the objective world and us while we are within it. And as such, the museum becomes a sanctuary.

To use disclosure, in the form of speech and deed, in the space of “the imaginary world” that is the museum is to prioritize that world over the objective world. In doing so, it solidifies and delineates one’s sphere of self and community. Every time one succeeds at it, one experiences, besides the fear and excitement I mentioned earlier a kind of happiness too.  A transcendent, measured, and knowing happiness! From experience, this happiness knows that nothing, including itself, can safeguard one against future failures and disappointments. It recognizes that nothing lasts forever as nothing is ongoing, an instant in the process of continuous reincarnation. It shall pass; it shall reappear. The visa will expire only to be renewed again.

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