Art for Drug Lords

In Culiacan, Mexico —a hub of the Mexican narc-trade — Jose Espinoza produces works of art for many of the areas wealthiest, and most notorious, citizens. From The Birth of Venus in the domed ceiling over a Jacuzzi to twenty-foot-tall portraits of flamenco dancers to exquisite religious imagery surrounding the graves of drug-trade casualties, his works add a classical beauty to the mansions and mausoleums begotten by the local trade in heroin and marijuana.

Espinoza, recently profiled in the Los Angeles Times, claims to not judge his clients and, although opposed to drug trafficking, he never refuses a client. The profile makes much of the apparent contradictions of producing fine art for drug lords, especially considering that many of Espinoza’s other commissions come from the Roman Catholic Church.

But is it so contradictory? Is there any contradiction in making something beautiful for a disreputable patron? Is there any moral imperative to not make art for criminals? Rather, are artists ever required to consider moral imperatives, or are they only obligated to their art?

Before answering these three questions, I will suggest that the most important question to be asked of Espinoza and his work is, “Why do we care in the first place?” I submit that Espinoza, as the Picasso of the Poppy-Peddlers, allows us to ask the questions we refuse to ask about ourselves; he is the figure who ought to live up to the standards we don’t hold ourselves to. Those three questions about the relationship between beauty and morality, morality and legality, and art and obligation, should be considered while taking a hard look at ourselves.

First, art has always been made for the bad guys. Humans have a psychological tendency to conflate aesthetic and moral value (simply put, we think pretty things are good things), so we tend to think that good art is, and has always been, made for good people. The beautiful works of art produced by Jose Espinoza, then, shouldn’t be enjoyed by murderers and dope pushers, right?

Perhaps, but the European Renaissance — that pinnacle of Western cultural achievement —occurred alongside the genocide of two continents worth of people and the enslavement of another continent, all while the women of Europe were being burnt alive en masse for consorting with evil spirits. That is to say, beautiful art can be made by, and for, ugly people, even abhorrent people, and the real difference between a drug kingpin in Culiacan and a Rockefeller is legality, our second answer.

“Legal” never means “moral.” This should be a simple concept but, just like we mix up pretty things and good things, we also think that things are illegal because they’re bad. Heroin and marijuana are illegal; so is transporting them across borders to sell them, and so is killing people to protect or expand such a business. Thus, those are all bad things and conscientious citizens shouldn’t contribute to them or reward them with opulent works of art.

But those drug lords are only criminals because of the long prohibition on (some) hard drugs, and they’re only monsters because our War on Drugs says they are. They aren’t on the wrong side of the law so much as they’re on the wrong side of the color line. When people of color sell or use drugs, it’s a crime that often leads to serious prison sentences and social condemnation, but when privileged young white people sell or use drugs, it’s a Thursday night in Vista Del Campo. We don’t have a problem with drugs, and we don’t have many qualms about murder (just ask an Iraqi), but we’re very invested in the belief that we oppose them. In much the same way, we’re also invested in the belief that legitimate art still exists, our third answer.

There is no art in America, only money. Think back on the last ten works of art you saw, chances are that most, if not all, of them were commercials. We don’t think of commercials as “art,” but many of the most talented artists in America are in advertising. Actors, cinematographers, fashion designers and graphic artists all make livings producing pieces of art (sometimes remarkable pieces of art) that sell us stuff.

Or, consider “legitimate” fine art in America. Want to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic? Head over to the Disney Concert Hall. Want to see a Rembrandt or the new exhibition from Robert Crumb? Visit the Hammer Museum brought to you by Occidental Petroleum. Better yet, if you want to learn a thing or two about art while you’re here at UCI, take a class from the school named after the reptilian billionaire’s stepmother. Whatever art or an artist’s obligations should be, we’re a lot better at writing about them than living them.

This brings us back to Jose Espinoza and what is so fascinating about him: here is a classically-trained Artist, far removed from the centers of legitimate art, decorating the homes of mini-Tony Montanas (the proverbial “bad guys”). If we don’t want to reckon with who we work for, or with how frighteningly arbitrary the line between ourselves and the criminals is, or with how sad and empty our cultural landscape is, we can always reflect on what one Mexican artist should be doing.

The real tragedy in all of this is that Mexico, home of some of the 20th century’s most important and influential artists, is now considered a cultural backwater, a second-rate tourist destination, a den of corruption where art is produced for churches, crypts, and mansions (as though a distinction should be made between the three!) and not for the people.