Bullfighting is an Art: My Talk at the Oxford & Cambridge Club

I delivered the following talk on the bulls to a packed dining room at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall, London yesterday. I wish I could remember the fascinating questions put afterwards, particularly the one by the philosopher Brendan McLaughlin bringing in schadenfreude and Nietzsche rather neatly. I sold copies of my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight afterwards. It can be found at most British bookshops, or purchased at a 50% discount at Amazon by clicking here, or purchased and downloaded even more cheaply as an eBook by clicking here (it includes both the black & white and the colour photos).

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Like the undergraduate I would like to being this talk with a definition, this is from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Cruel, adjective

From the Middle English, Cruel. Also in French, Cruel, Spanish Cruel, Italian, Crudele, All from the Latin crūdēl-em – morally rough, cruel, from same root as crude.

Primary definition: Of persons: Disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress; destitute of kindness or compassion; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted.

First given use: 1297

Now let me move onto bullfighting.

Now, I can – and have given – various relative defences of bullfighting to Anglo-Saxon audiences (in which loose tribe I count myself), which can be found in detail in Chapter 7 of the book [and with vivid pictures in the transcript of my talk at the Edinburgh Festival – AFH]. I won’t repeat here the horrors of the abattoir, the utterly unnecessary and environmentally damaging habit of eating meat for adult humans, the fact that one fifth of Spain’s wilderness, the dehesa, is owned and maintained by the breeders of the fighting bulls which would surely become more standard farmland were the activity banned, nor the fact that the British don’t seem quite so squeamish about the brutal and real death of animals contained in the output of the BBC Natural History Unit.

For these are all, perhaps with the exception of the environmental argument, relative defences, and hackneyed ones from the pro-bullfighting lobby at that. However, contrary to the anti-bullfighting lobby’s claims, they do not make the schoolboy error of saying two wrongs make a right. They are actually asking us to make a more genuine assessment of our dealings with animals, calling us liars in our assertion that we believe killing animals is in anyway wrong. That in fact we kill and more importantly eat animals on nothing more than a whim tells you our real evaluation of their moral status. I emphasise eat, because although many cultures have sanctioned the killing of other humans, usually from other cultures, sometimes from their own, very, very few have allowed us to eat our dead. Cannibalism is the gravest and most universal taboo. And yet we eat a burger, with its measurably negative nutritional value, on nothing more than a whim. We eat their dead, we do not eat ours.

That said, returning to my opening definition, bullfighting is clearly cruel in so far as it permits the suffering and death of the bull. This permission, is a form of moral, if not dramatic, indifference. Now, I don’t doubt that there are some members of the bullfight audience who are genuine sadists, who thrill in the blood, but the majority of Spanish aficionados enjoy the bullfight despite the blood, not because of it.

One very important thing to point out, is that bull-fighting is not a sport. It grew out one – that of knightly jousting with an indigenous subspecie of bull singular to the Iberian peninsular which was famed for its ferocity. Following the joust, the bull was dispatched by a servant, the killer, or matador – for that is what that word means – who quickly learned to distract the injured animal with a piece of cloth so he could administer the coup de grace with a sword. If the bull had not been serverely injured, he would have to be quite inventive with that distracting lure, the cloth, and the audience came to admire his skill and risk on the ground far more than that of the nobleman and his horse, and were he to perform remarkably well, the meat of the bull was awarded to the matador, who was given a ticket with which to collect the carcass afterwards, and the best ticket to prevent false claims is the ear of the bull in question.

Now, economics and human nature being what they are, it was soon seen that crowds could be made to pay to watch this thrilling spectacle and the church and state joined together to build the largest audience structures since the Roman colisea in the 18th century and which were not eclipsed in size until the Victorians built the British football stadia at the end of the 19th century.

The attraction of the matador’s antics easily outstripped that of their noble employers, and this coincided with the Borbon regime’s disapproval of the pasttime among their courtiers, and a generation of star matadors began with Pedro Romero, born in Ronda in 1754, and his rival Costillares born in Seville in 1743. With them, in a wonderfully Spanish and democratic inversion, the mounted knight became paid employee of the matador, the infamous picador.

Now, as the bull-fights moved from being a joust to something more akin to a circus spectacle, a new purpose for them was revealed – to emotionally move the audience. And, as audiences in the land of Goya, Calderon, and Cervantes, became more educated, and less aesthetically rough if not less morally so, the form of the emotional movement became more subtle, less thrills and spills and more about something else. General dramatic ideas of man’s confrontation with death, the goal of all art – death being represented by the bull – combined with the warrior virtues of courage and athleticism. Of course, it was the only the art-form in which the representation was also the thing represented. The man genuinely risked death himself as he stood in the ring for all men.

Of the 120 famous matadors from the era of Romero and Costillares onwards, 40 died in the ring, and hundreds of others less notable. Since Alexander Fleming’s invention of penicillin and subsequent advances in trauma and vascular surgery, the number has fallen dramatically. But the risk is there, as the matador and my good friend Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez can tell you, having lost his father the great matador Paquirri in the ring as a child. (My travels with Cayetano are well documented in the book on chapter 14 and 16.)

The completion of the transition of this three act spectacle into an artform occurred in the early twentieth century and is usually attributed to the great Juan Belmonte, of whom Hemingway said he had to remain stationary in the ring because he lacked the physical strength to get out of the way. Belmonte, who like most matadors grew up in extreme poverty and used his fame from the bulls to climb out of it, invented the modern style of toreo – I shall stop calling it bullfighting now, because that is an English word derived from our own brutal and pointless bull-baiting, and has nothing to do with the corrida de toros – Belmonte’s style of toreo was to stand stock still, and draw the bull onto his postion with the movement of the cape, to fix its attention onto the cape as it reached him, and, matching its rhythm and speed, to safely guide it past him. I say safely, although the real skill of the greats: Belmonte, Manolete, Cayetano’s grandfather, Antonio Ordóñez, all sought to bring the bull as close as possible during this “pass”, leaving hairs of the bull caught in the gold braid of their suits of light, as they perfect this style. As does the greatest matador today, José Tomás.

The aesthetic goal of these matadors is that of perfect stillness as the black fury, the blood and thunder of half a tonne of paranoia and muscle is drawn elegantly round it. This is the heart of modern toreo, offering the tangible representation of man’s calm uprightness in the face of wild, anarchic death. And the movement within the breast of the audience this causes, the emocion resulting from the transmicion as aficionados call it, is what sells tickets, which is what pays matador’s wages. Not number of passes, or number of kills, or the size of the bull, or any of the other quantifiable means of keeping score which define a sport. Hemingway called it art unreservedly, while the co-founder of our national theatre, Kenneth Tynan qualified it as a performance art, a play, most resembling Othello, he said. The best description of its aim was put by an artist from another medium, the author, producer, director and lead actor of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles. He said,

“What it comes down to is simple. Either you respect the integrity of the drama the bullring provides or you don’t. If you do respect it, you demand only the catharsis which it is uniquely constructed to give. And once you make this commitment you are no longer interested in the vaudeville of the ring. You don’t give a damn for fancy passes and men kneeling on their knees. There used to be this fraud who bit the tip of the bull’s horn. Very brave and very useless, because it played no part in the essential drama of man against bull. Such tricks cheapen the bull and therefore lessen the tragedy. What you are interested in is the art whereby a man using no tricks reduces a raging bull to his dimensions, and this means that the relationship between the two must always be maintained and even highlighted. The only way this can be achieved is with art.And what is the essence of this art? That the man carry himself with grace and that he move the bull slowly and with a certain majesty. That is, he must allow the inherent quality of the bull to manifest itself.”

This insight is one reason why his ashes are interred at the house of his and Hemingway’s friend Antonio Ordóñez.

So, bullfighting is not a sport, and the greatest source of Anglo-Saxon repugnance to it, our notion of fairplay is irrelevant – to apply it is to commit a category error, as the philosopher’s call it. Any torero worth their salt could kill any bull when it enters the ring fresh and untouched by the picador’s lance and the banderilleros barbed sticks. However, he could not do it according to the rules of the bullring, which require entering over the horns of the bull with the sword, placing the blade between the fourth and fifth, or fifth and sixth ribs, vertebrae on the right, clavicle on the left, severing the bull’s aorta.

As Welles says, in order to get this drama, the bull must be reduced to the size of the matador, as the protagonists at the end of so many Hollywood films are equalised through injury so the final duel may excite your sympathies and interest through the appearance that the hero may lose. The matador is limited first by the rules he must obey in the pass, in the kill, even in the ridiculously tight trousers he wears. The bull, having displayed his unrestrained vigour at the beginning in the passes with the large cape, is then reduced by the lance and the banderillas, so the full tragedy can be played out with art.

I was going to end with an example of that art, read a passage from the spectacular fight I describe in chapter 13 of José Tomás that the critics of the bullfight said was his best (and the reviewers of the book said the same) , but I find it is hard to do so without first educating the audience in what is in the preceding chapters. I will give you its conclusion, though, this is what a great bullfight can do for you:

Cruelty was forgotten, hesitation and self-doubt had equally flown out the window. We were besotted.

However, if Tomás made me forget, I was very quickly reminded that the bullfight is indeed a cruel thing. This is from two chapters on:

Later that evening I watched the one and only bullfight I will ever see in Pamplona. The party atmosphere from the streets was magnified in the ring. Not one, but six bands were in operation, each one from a different fan club celebrating. The fans themselves danced and shouted and swore and drank, half the time with their backs to the sand. The matadors valiantly tried to get their attention by fighting, but the bulls were so distracted by the noise – and being run through the streets that morning – that they were almost impossible to make charge. It was an ugly, barbaric thing.

And then the bull I had run beside came in, and although he was fought well, he refused to die, despite the sword being within him. As the crowd cheered and booed, swayed and screamed, he walked over to the planks and began a long, slow march around the ring, holding on to life as though with some internal clenched fist, refusing to give up, refusing to die. I had run next to this great animal, had matched myself to him as best I could, and in doing so felt some form of connection to the powers that propelled him. Now I watched them all turned inwards in an attempt to defy the tiny, rigid ribbon of steel within his chest, and having been blinded by no beauty, tricked by no displays of courage or prowess by the matadors, I just saw an animal trying to stay on its feet against the insuperable reality of death. I left the plaza de toros with tears in my eyes.

(Post script: Despite these sentiments, I will once again looking to find the magic when I go to see this, the greatest living matador, José Tomás toreando in the Roman coliseum in Nîmes, France, this Sunday. Seven days later, he will return to the scene of his greatest triumphs, La Monumental in Barcelona, in the last ever corrida de toros, which is already sold out of its 20,000 seats. After 97 years, the Catalonian provincial parliament has voted to ban the corrida as a Castillian import, although they still allow bulls’ horns to be set on fire and the animals run through the streets until they die…)

1 thought on “Bullfighting is an Art: My Talk at the Oxford & Cambridge Club

  1. Pingback: – The Last Arena

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