Anti-bullfighting protestors with black- and red-painted bodies formed an image of a wounded bull on the plaza of the Guggenheim Bilbao, the other day. A few weeks ago Catalonia banned bullfighting beginning in 2012, and sensing blood, the activists are seeking total abolition of the traditional sport.
Of course, they object to the mistreatment of the animals, but take a look at this image (below) from the ring in Navarre, Spain, last week. (The sensational photo was published by Diario de Navarra, which has some amateur video, as well.) Goya depicted a similar incident in his 1815-16 etching series “La Tauromaquia,” or “The Art of Bullfighting.” He knew that the ancient sport can be dangerous not only to toreros. In the recent episode six people wound up in the hospital, though none was injured gravely. After 15 minutes a group of spectators subdued the bull until it could be roped and put to death.
If you’ve attended a bullfight – they take place in Iberia, Southern France, Mexico and South America – you know that it combines rodeo with a dance of death, usually the animal’s. The event consists of a series of matches — like innings in baseball — in which a bull is let into the ring, then systematically debilitated by lancers on padded horses who repeatedly pierce the upper back, then by men on foot who race past the wounded animal and with both hands thrust barbed and beribboned daggers into the shoulders, and finally by the matador who taunts the bleeding beast into charging a red cape, then faces off with the animal and finally plunges a sword into the flesh behind the head. A bull that puts up a gallant fight can be spared by the crowd, and a bullfighter who exhibits extraordinary machismo or elegance can be awarded the beast’s ears.
The sport is a cultural artifact steeped in ritual and national tradition. Indeed, it is considered an art. Newspapers cover the events in a combination of sports writing and ballet criticism. (Hemingway famously tried his hand at the genre.) The focus is on the bullfighter whose excellence is a matter of demeanor — how closely he allows the animal to pass, the elegance of his movements and their harmony with the bull’s, his non-chalance in turning and walking away from the animal. Style and swagger are everything, and the bulls themselves are critiqued along with their executioners.
I have attended in Madrid and found it astonishing on many levels. Yes, the cruelty of the systematic destruction of the animals, the courage of the youths who challenge them, the aesthetic aspects of their choreographic confrontation with their potentially lethal opponents, and the metaphorical character of the battle in which human calculation, skill and athleticism conquer the brute and dangerous force of nature. (Goya evoked these qualities, below, as well as less refined dimensions of the sport.)
Yet, it was also disappointing. Many of the fights were dull. The odds are stacked against the animal not only by the number of his assailants and their superior armor, but also because in today’s matches his main weapon, his horns, are clipped down to stubs. There are farms that specialize in breeding fierce bulls, but few that I saw were admirably game fighters. Neither were all the toreros admirably daring and elegant performers. Like boxers, most were roughnecks drawn from the lower economic ranks of society who seemed less brave artists than kids struggling to earn a living. None exhibited the sort of grace and gravity that could elevate the encounter from slaughter to the sort of mythical grandeur to which it aspires. Rather than a pathetic and awesome enactment of the conquest of good over evil the event seemed more a demonstration of human injustice.
Should the ancient sport be abolished?