“If I were prime minister, I would ban the bullfights, but until that time I continue to attend.” (Spanish writer Ramon Perez de Ayala)
“The tradition is to call toreo an art, and I got nods of agreement from bullfighters and fans whenever I suggested an analogy to jazz, since every combination of bull and bullfighter elicits a different, irreproducible, unpredictable, improvised performance.” (Michael Kimmelman, NY Times, 6/1/08)
Michael Kimmelman, Ivy League graduate and chief art critic for the NY Times, considers bullfighting beautiful art (indeed, reviews are carried on the culture pages), and he finds it disgraceful to cheapen the performance by blunting the bull’s horns or deliberately breeding docility. Kimmelman writes that “the true goal is bringing out the innate bravery and nobility and distinct character of each bull” and suggests we keep an “open mind.” Having previously written on bullfighting particulars, it still bears repeating what Kimmelman compares to jazz…
Although a 2006 Gallup poll revealed that 72% of Spaniards have no interest in watching a bullfight (up from 46% in 1987), many remain proud and defiant in the face of international pressure. Kimmelman quotes sociologist Lorenzo Navarrete Moreno: “They [Spanish people] say they’re against killing a bull but against banning corridas too. People continue to cling to a notion of national identity even if it entails something they don’t like.” The transplanted American journalist (and fan) Bill Lyon says that “most Spaniards aren’t interested in toreo and many are against it — that is, until somebody from the outside tries to prohibit it.”
Spanish state television no longer airs live fights, and Catalonia is on the verge of banning them entirely. Animal advocacy groups have taken root in Spain over the past 20 years, and the corrida is the central issue. Writing in the Guardian (6/6/10), Paul Richardson notes: “Right up until the turn of the 21st century, to be a bullfight objector was to be stigmatised as lily-livered and unpatriotic. …The antitaurino movement is increasingly vociferous, dynamic and committed.”
In response to their Catalan rivals, Madrid moved to protect bullfighting as an artform, lumping the preservation of historical buildings with the public torture and killing of sentient beings. Speaking for the city’s conservative party, Esperanza Aquirre referenced great artists (Picasso, Goya, Hemingway, Welles) as passionate aficionados. German photographer Anya Bartels-Suermondt, who recently published a book on Jose Tomas, calls toreo an “artistic union of man and animal” and says, “I respect the opinions of those who don’t enjoy the spectacle – but the bullfight is part of world culture, and also deserves our respect. Abolition would be a tragic blow to our democratic right of self-expression.”
Perhaps, though, the most corrupt defense comes from the French philosopher Francis Wolff: (The Observer, 3/7/10) “They have been conserved as a breed precisely because of their bravery. The only use they have is exactly the one for which they have been bred.” In other words, without the bullfight, fighting bulls would cease to exist. So, in effect, toreo proponents are responsible conservationists. Wow.
In spite of the escalating controversy, the tradition (a tradition, by the way, that fetes a child-slayer) endures. While in Spain, Kimmelman met with another famous torero, Cayetano Rivera. Rivera (who described the feeling of being “in the clouds with the bull”) was reflective and almost apologetic: “I’m not a hunter, and the first time I killed a bull it didn’t feel good. It was shocking. Nobody loves the bull more than the bullfighter, that’s for sure. But it’s a responsibility, and it wouldn’t be fair to have someone else kill the bull. It’s only fair that I risk my life doing it.” To be clear, there is nothing fair about a bullfight. The bull will be tortured, and he will die. And no amount of romantic rhetoric will alter that reality.
While true, as bullfighting enthusiasts assert, that the toro’s suffering and death is no worse than his beef-cattle brother’s, no one is waxing poetic about factory farms and slaughterhouses. Ernest Hemingway wrote: (Death in the Afternoon) “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour.” Art? Culture? Honor? Tradition? Alas, the lies men tell themselves, and the bloodstained rationalizations they spew to the rest of us.