Is bullfighting an art?

Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in Sanlucar de Barrameda in 2009 by Nicolás Haro

In last weekend’s Sunday Times there is a review of my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (which can be purchased at Amazon by clicking here) which, although largely positive, has two main criticisms.

The first, a minor one, is that the author is too self-regarding. I can’t really protest against this on pain of self-contradiction, and my only response is to say that the bullfight is, as I argue below, all about the emotion it inspires in both bullfighter and the audience. Since I play both of those roles at different points in the book, I have no choice but to describe who I am so the reader can try to triangulate what sort of emotions it might inspire in them.

His second, more serious criticism is two-pronged: he finds my apparent conversion from journalist to aficionado, and then beyond that to practioner, repellent, and this is made worse by the fact that he finds my justifications given in defence of bullfighting fatuous. The funny thing is, the review in the usually much more sentimental and emotional Daily Mail says that what makes my book readable is that I manage to maintain my “disgust “for the bullfight throughout the book.

So what is the truth? Am I in love with the bullfight, or in hate? The answer is both, at different times, and sometimes with such a quick turnaround between them that they seem to overlap. However, there is one thing I am not, and that is someone who would unprotestingly allow any law to be passed to ban it. The primary reason is because politically I am a liberal. The secondary one is that I believe bullfighting can be justified, even if the justification will not convince everyone all of the time (and that includes me.) The justification I phrased best in the Prospect magazine article which led to the book:

Whether or not the artistic quality of the bullfight outweighs the moral question of the animals’ suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves – as they must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the death of a cow. But if we ignore the possibility that one does outweigh the other, we fall foul of the charge of self-deceit and incoherence in our dealings with animals.

This is what has given me the title of this blog post. I believe that the bullfight does have an artistic quality, in fact, that can be an art in its own right. Now, I am aware that a large number of people, including the Sunday Times reviewer, think that even if it is an art-form, it could not possibly be justified on that basis. In fact, one journalist for the BBC – our national television network that has a state-enforced monopoly largely to guarantee the impartiality of its journalism – whom I approached on the subject, put his views even more strongly in an email to me.

Dear Xander,

Thanks so much for the invitation. I do have a passing interest in the subject – nothing quite cheers up my morning like reading in the paper that some matador or another has been gored to death by one of the bulls he was proposing to kill. It’s sort of like a man-bites-dog story, but with an added moral twist. But most of the time, I’m more interested in sports stories where both participants have volunteered to take part, and where one of the parties hasn’t been deliberately hobbled by minions sticking spears in them beforehand. Come to think of it, I guess you could see it as appreciating the rules of fair-play they instill at Eton.


So, even though I am actually torn on the topic of bullfighting, it is no wonder that I so often find myself writing pieces that seem like they are stridently defending it – someone has to balance the media ship.

However, to return to the question of “Is bullfighting an art?”

“Yes,” is the immediate answer that springs to the mind of the vast majority of aficionados, ‘devotees’, of the bullfight, among whose ranks I do not include myself. And the reason they give is simple: the bullfight as practised for the past three hundred years is a performance spectacle which has all the scripted inevitability of a ritual sacrifice. The outcome is pre-ordained: the death of the bull. Even if the matador is outright killed, as in the case of El Yiyo near Madrid in 1985, or fatally wounded like Paquirri near Córdoba in 1984, or incapacitated as with José Tomás in Mexico last year, another matador will step into the ring and kill the bull.

This is one reason why it is absolutely not a sport. No points are awarded, no goals are scored. Instead, it follows a script, the major parts of which are not only written down, but codified in Spanish law. This script is adhered to by a supporting cast – banderilleros, picadores, the mozo de espada etc. – and a lead actor – the matador. The audience pays for it via tickets whose price is set by the impresario of the bullring. What that price is, and how many people buy the tickets – the box-office takings – are dictated by several factors like location, size of venue, time of year etc. However, the single biggest factor is the star power of the matador. You may ask what it is that gives him this quality, given that, unlike in football, there is nothing concrete like statistics to follow. The reason is simple: his ability to excite, bewilder, sadden, uplift, stun, terrify, gladden and, in the final analysis, to move the audience. On this alone rests his earning power, and without it, no amount of skill with the bull, nor courage, nor good-looks will save his career. Unless there is transmisión from performer to audience, he is dead in the water and will soon be forced into another profession by the invisible hand of the free market.

The essential intent of all matadors is a performance that will emotionally move. With some this is at the deep level of the heart and soul using what the near-sister world of flamenco calls duende. With others it will be at the superficial level of the’ thrill’ using a type of bullfighting called by those who disapprove of it tremendismo. A third type, one of the least common today, involves a display of skill that is neither hauntingly poetic nor glossily spectacular, but showing a remarkable skill with the most difficult, and most dangerous animals in corridas duras, ‘hard bullfights’.

However, given this essential truth, that at heart this is a performance spectacle designed to move the audience – which means it has the exact same form as theatre, ballet and opera – why is it a controversial question as to whether or not it is art? (I am deliberately ignoring the habit of some people to unthinkingly call anything they do not like “not art” rather than “bad art”. Bad art is, as a matter of definition, still art.) The reason, I think, is simple: because in the British mind we cannot conceive of any reason to do anything with an animal that is not “sport” because that it is our cultural heritage and prejudice. And therefore, as a sport, there’s no denying it is a pretty goddamned unfair one.

This lack of fairness, as the brutally inhumane BBC journalist says, is the single thing that most upsets us. This despite our own ‘sports’ of not just foxhunting – and yes, let’s face the fact that the legislation to ban it failed and it now goes on in record amounts – but also angling and game shooting, all of which involve the killing of an animal as part of an entertainment, and not one of which gives that animal a shot at its killer, let alone an even chance.

One thing that does not help with this is the English name, bullfight, which bears absolutely no relation to the Spanish term corrida de toros, ‘running of bulls’. This English word has come to us from the 18th century and owes as much to the foul old English sport of bull-baiting which invariably led to the death of most of the dogs used as well as the bull. (The English bulldog was invented as a breed for this purpose, interestingly remaining as much a national symbol as the toro bravo, or fighting bull, is of Spain.) However, as Ernest Hemingway put it in his 1932 book Death In The Afternoon,

The bullfight is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an equal contest or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather, it is a tragedy; the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved and in which there is danger for the man, but certain death for the animal.

The fact is that bullfighting does not even pretend to be a sport, for this reason bullfight reviews are placed in the culture pages of the Spanish newspapers, not the sporting ones. However, there is still no denying that unlike theatre, opera and ballet, an animal dies as part of the process. Well, and I have to steel myself to say this because it goes against so many instincts, both in terms of my sentiment and that of people reading, but so what?

In the UK every single year, according to the RSPCA, we kill over 40 million cattle, sheep and pigs, alongside over 850 million poultry. Now, given that a significant proportion of these slaughtered animals are not only failing to fulfill any nutritional requirements (by significant, let’s begin with all fast food), but also, given the current obesity crisis, these dead animals actually have a nutritionally negative value. As a matter of logic then, the only correct analysis of all this death is that it is for our entertainment. Entertainment of our mouth, nose and stomach rather than eyes, ears and soul to be sure, but entertainment nonetheless. We eat unnecessary meat, from a McDonalds burger to a Gordon Ramsay steak, because we like the flavour, we revel in the taste, we crave the gustatory pleasure. Once it has ceased to be sustenance – once you have your 2,000 calories, 15 grams of essential amino acids and handful of vitamins – food just is entertainment. As anyone who has owned a successful restaurant or produced a successful cooking show on television is more than aware.

There is an apparent counter-argument to this, which was most recently delivered during an interview I had with a third journalist, which is not yet published. He pointed out that the essential purpose of food is consumption, even when done so as entertainment, and not the death of the animal. The flesh just happens to come from an animal.

I say this is only apparently a riposte because when one looks a little further, it gets awfully shaky. There are two primary logical consequences of his viewpoint. The first is that his disapproval of the death, and his separation of it from the actual act of eating, implies he would be happier to eat meat that was grown in a laboratory if such a thing were possible (which it soon will be). Now, I don’t know about you, but that is not a future I foresee myself admiring.

Secondly, his view further implies that the essential purpose of the bullfight is the death of the bull; as though most of the audience sit there through the evening internally chanting, “get to the kill” in the same manner as the Hollywood silent movie directors who used to say “cut to the chase.” There is something distinctly xenophobic in this view of the Spanish public. Spain, in case people have forgotten, is the fifth most populous, and fifth richest nation (by GDP) in the EU, of which we are also members. Blood lust is something I have never once witnessed at a bullfight, although I certainly have at a British football match. And a matador who fails to kill cleanly – and matador translates as killer by the way – is booed and whistled and if he is particularly inept he is jeered as an asesino, a ‘butcher’.

This is not to say that the death does not have a central role in the drama. However, one no more sits there waiting for it than you do for Hamlet’s death at the end of Shakespeare’s play or Vito Corleone’s at the end of The Godfather. However, it is still true to say that all the aficionados I know would be about as unhappy about a bullfight which did not result in the death of the bull as theatre-goers would be with Hamlet with a Happy Ending or most of us would be eating meat that did not come from a dead animal (I am ignoring for the moment those fights in which the bull is ‘pardoned’, indultado, for exceptional bravery since they are just that, exceptions.)

The Shakespeare analogy is a good one as it brings into even sharper focus a profound truth about this viewpoint. In 1807 Thomas Bowdler published his famous ‘bowlderised’ edition of Shakespeare in which he followed an editorial line developed by his father whilst reading the plays aloud to his wife and children whose gentle ears he did not wish to wound. The full title was The Family Shakspeare, in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family by Thomas Bowdler in 10 volumes. So, for example, to prevent the moral horror and blasphemy of Ophelia’s suicide from falling on innocent ears he changed her death into an accident. As for Hamlet’s condemnation of his mother’s too-quick marriage to her late husband’s brother (and murderer), he simply cut it. Not for them “the rank sweat of an incestuous bed / Stewed in corruption.”

What is most risible about this literary Puritanism is that it was actually Thomas’s sister Harriet who did most of the editing. However, if she had put her name on the book people would realise that she, a vulnerable woman, had read and understood the pages she had cut with their passages of profanity, obscenity and vulgarity.

As with our hidden abattoirs and our cellophane-wrapped, headless, hoofless supermarket products, we do love to mask reality. How different, and how truthful – if not easily digestible – the statement of the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez when he said to me that if the bull were not killed in the bullfight, it would only be killed afterwards by someone else, “who has risked nothing, knows nothing about him, and feels nothing for him.”

Author and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in Sanlucar de Barrameda in 2009

Perhaps it will make his statement more palateable when I say that not only has he nearly died more than once in the ring – most recently from liver-failure brought on by a goring – but that his father was the previously mentioned matador Paquirri, killed by a bull when Cayetano was eight years old. His family have risked much and lost much, although they have also sometimes triumphed: his grandfather Antonio Ordóñez, was one of Hemingway’s best friends and the 20th century’s greatest matadors.

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordóñez in Madrid in 1959

The other counter-argument I offered my interviewer was that actually we rather enjoy watching death in Britain, and not just of the sort simulated on the stage by the Elizabethans or the screen by Hollywood. One of the UK’s greatest products in the world of entertainment is the output of the BBC Natural History unit. There is an irony in the fact that at the traditional time of the bullfight, five in the afternoon on a Sunday, vast numbers of British families can be found with stomachs full of roast beef on a sofa watching a lion disembowel a buffalo as David Attenborough smoothly narrates. (And please note, this meat is from an 18-month old factory-farmed calf, not a five year old bull that grows up in the nature reserve that is a bullfighting ranch so it can build the muscle and learn the horn-skills on its herd-brothers it needs in the ring.)

Now, the journalist in question simply could not intellectually link these two facts: that we are responsible for the death of the calf by buying the meat and thus creating the market to kill it, and that although we don’t film the animal in the abattoir, we do film its African buffalo cousins dying in agony and terror in the wild (buffalo are hard to finish off, so usually predators begin eating them alive from the end without the horns.)

Now, when I am in an argument like that, I do indeed become pro-bullfighting, because I become intolerantly angry that someone cannot see that there is no moral mileage between these two activities and that this is rank hypocrisy. And I am well aware of La Rochefoucauld maxim: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” However, in this case it is paid in coin of no value. Not to the bull, the calf or the buffalo anyway. I see it as a self-serving emotivism.

However, in calmer more reflective moments I realise that this is not the whole picture. While it is true that in a very important sense it doesn’t matter a damn whether I want to watch an animal die or not, as long as I cause it to die I am responsible, there is another ethical tradition – which I associate with the likes of Bowdler and the Victorians that followed him – that one should maintain an inner virtue. What does it do to our souls and the souls of our children, this voice asks, to be exposed to the naked realities of life and death in such a stark manner? Well, it is my personal belief that openness and honesty trumps self-betterment and inner virtue in this particular case. I also believe that the artistic merits of the bullfight must be weighed in the balance here.

So, if you have come this far, I assume you can understand without too much virtuous disgust that certain people might conceivably, without malice or dishonesty, believe that bullfighting is arguably not massively worse than being an omnivore, and might therefore see how such a person might sit down to a dramatic spectacle in which an animal dies on stage rather than an anonymous slaughterhouse around the corner (I should add here that all dead bulls enter the food chain.) You might think such a person callous or odd, but still a person nonetheless.

So now I will ask that you make a little step further and try to understand exactly what sort of drama is at stake here. It is the drama of life and death itself. And, unlike in all other art-forms, it both represents life and death and actually is life and death. The reason for this unique capacity to both be something and represent it simultaneously is that as an art-form, the bullfight is a primitive one. For the bullfight evolved out of something – the knightly jousting of bulls – that was not an art at all, but a training for war. Of course, one can speak of the “art of war”, but one is using the word “art” in an older sense, as a synonym of craft or technique. The sense of the word we are using here is far more modern. In fact, it is listed as the eighth definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:

The expression or application of creative skill and imagination producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Although this is the most usual modern sense of art when used without any qualification, it has not been found in English dictionaries until the 19th cent. Before then, it seems to have been used chiefly by painters and writers on painting.

In order to show how a bullfight can live up to these criteria, I will quote a passage from my book describing the best bullfight I have ever seen, in Jerez in 2009, with the greatest matador de arte (more on this phrase later) Spain has ever known, José Tomás.

Standing in profile to the bull with his feet together, the sword held directly out in front of him horizontally, with the small red cape, the muleta, hanging down from it, he glances sideways at the bull some twenty yards away. He gives the muleta a small shake, and the bull, having decided the muleta is a threat, commits to a charge at a full gallop. Tomás then does not move again, trusting that the bull has decided the muleta – one of whose edges flows down along his legs – is the real target. Not looking at the animal, he literally is a statue as it hits the yielding cloth and passes harmlessly through. Bewildered, the bull turns on the other side and, now ten yards away, stares at the man and the cloth. Tomás shakes again, and this time it charges harder and faster, twisting its head in the cloth, seeking to destroy its opponent, the movement putting its own flanks out of alignment so its hindquarters smash into Tomás’s legs, knocking his feet apart. This he corrects with a small shuffle as the bull turns again, this time seven yards away. He sends a thrill of movement through the muleta and the bull charges again, this time rearing its head upwards as it passes through, rather than side to side as before. It is trying to find the main body of the enemy that is mocking it with this lure. Again Tomás does not move an inch, waiting for the bull to turn, which it does. He remains still for a second longer this time – the bull is breathless from the great efforts involved in accelerating its muscular bulk to its top speed.

Then he moves the muleta again, and again the bull comes through, rearing, both forehooves coming three feet off the ground. As it turns this time, Tomás shuffles forward to find the right place to cite it from, because now it is a mere three feet from him. As the bull reaches the cloth, he lets the fabric fall from the sword entirely into his left hand, so it goes down to the ground, forcing the bull to foreshorten its charge and stop while turning, allowing him to merely stand and stare at it for a moment, before he calmly walks away to allow the bull to catch its breath.

He begins again a few moments later and enters into a series of passes with the muleta in the left hand, sword in the right behind his back, which are so classic in their form, so pure, so wounding in their seriousness – and I know that this will never come across in prose, but their sadness – that the audience rises to their feet simultaneously; there is not one of us who is not bewitched by this man’s artistry and courage.

Although courage is not the word for what he does, nor is contempt for death. As he fights he has a studied seriousness, a focus, which is perfectly weighted for the task at hand because it is on the task, not on its possible repercussions. When the pass calls for his focus to be on the muleta, he focuses on the muleta, not on the bull galloping towards him. Only when the bull is almost touching the muleta does he widen his gaze to the two to achieve templar, the matching of one’s own rhythm to the bull’s so it never reaches the elusive cloth; but, equally, the cloth never goes so far in front of the bull that it seeks another target.

However, it is not just in his actions that Tomás achieves a perfection of technique (and I do mean to say perfection, this is not hyperbole), but in his ‘being’. He is not a handsome man, he is too thin and spindly, and yet the suit of lights with its braided shoulders and short jacket gives the rotation of his torso above his waist an elegance of line which other matadors with more athletic proportions lack. The long thin legs are grounded in feet perfectly held together or angled, dancer-like, against each other. The grace is not sexual – there is nothing homoerotic here – but the aesthetics of a perfect form fitting function. He does not have the body of a sportsman or a fighter, because you do not fight bulls (although in English I have to use that verb, in Spanish the verb is torear, which simply has no translation because we do not do it). He has the body of a man trying to create the greatest elegance possible with the bull, the cape and his own body, a shifting tableau designed to strike the part of the mind which perceives beauty just as the other part which recognises risk adds a sort of background music of danger.

In fact, in order to describe properly what he does so well, one really has to describe what he doesn’t do. For example, the aesthetic of the bullfighter is largely based on being upright and rigid. It shows pride and immovability in the face of the massive streak of darkness that is the charging bull. However, so many bullfighters achieve it by locking their joints, by overdoing it, by ‘insisting’ on themselves, as have written before. Tomás just is upright. He has good posture, however, his muscles are loose, his physique relaxed, a dancer at rest trailing a cloth in the dust to draw pretty geometrical shapes. Meanwhile, swirling around him, occasionally knocking into him, is a 1,212lb bull moving at a gallop, frantically trying to find him, kill him, take out the threat, destroy the frustration.

José Tomás in 2009 (Photo: Author)

So, returning to my title question, we have an event in which an animal is publicly killed, and in that, it differs from anything else in the developed world. It most closely resembles pagan sacrificial rites or the gladiatorial arena of ancient Rome and Carthage (both of which have been claimed as the actual historical antecedents of bullfighting, along with Cretan bull-leaping. The truth is simply unknowable on this, due to lack of evidence.)

There is also a small risk of death for the man and a larger risk of injury. It is that very real, unsimulated danger, along with the real violence of the animal – which provides a certain proportion of its interest to the audience. This is something the spectacle has in common with the circus and the rodeo.

Now, not priest nor gladiator nor tightrope walker nor bullrider would I call an artist. Their goals are clear and they are not those of art.

José Tomás’s goal, within the structural confinements of the bullfight, is the creation of beauty and absolutely nothing else. Whether it be the momentary elegance of the given pass – correctly selected to match the animal – the suitability of the next pass to follow from it, or the natural sense of rhythm and symmetry with which he links the two – and with which the two fit the sequence – it is all about beauty. These are the actual conscious and unconscious thoughts of this matador whilst he is in the ring. What looks best with this animal now. What will transmit.

What else is intentional physical behaviour with the intent of the creation of beauty in order to aesthetically transport the observer if it is not the function of the artist?

(Note: I am aware that I am avoiding a massive academic argument here about what art actually is, but that is deliberate. Here is not the place to discuss mimesis, or Kant and Hume on the sublime and the beautiful, or ‘significant form’ or the later work of Croce and Adorno. I have avoided that by taking already accepted art-forms, the theatrical ones, and pointing out that it is too similar not to fall under the same descriptive terms, that is all. This is not a peer-review learned journal but a blog.)

Of course, with an animal with no wish to fight, such work is not possible. I did not say the bullfight is always a good work of art. In fact, I do not think it is always a work of art at all. For a bad bullfight, for example when the bull does not want to fight, it is more like a play in which the actors have forgotten their lines. Which is not actually a play at all. It is also horrific to witness because it has not only ceased to be art, but without the active participation of the bull, it has become a thing of bullying, goading and bloody death. A similar but lesser phenomenon occurs when an animal for another reason catches the eye and the heart and becomes the protagonist in a very different and very grisly drama. To quote from my book again, more briefly, this is a bullfight I had to walk out of a few weeks after Jerez:

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 after that. And there was nothing good in all that place.

I will end with two further addenda.

First, not all aficionados agree with my view. In his 1956 book Bull Fever, the British theatre critic and co-founder – with Lawrence Olivier – of the National Theatre, Kenneth Tynan wrote:

[Bullfighting] is not an art in itself, but the cause that art is in other men – poets, for example, painters, sculptors, and musicians. The matador is not, by any definition that pretends to strictness, an artist any more than Beowulf or Odysseus were artists; like them he is an epic adventurer in whose deeds there is enormous incidental beauty, whose life is the raw material for an unwritten narrative poem, a Bemontiad or Litriad in embryo. [Juan Belmonte and El Litri are two of the great matadors of history.]

However, a little later in the same book, he goes on to say:

Interpretive artists, such as actors and bullfighters, stand in especial need of observers to immortalise them.

Which seems to me a case of him making a rather fine distinction between interpretive and creative artists, but Mr Tynan is no longer around to argue with.

Secondly and finally, it is fair to argue that not all matadors even aspire to art, and thus fairly argued that what they make is not. As I mentioned at the beginning, some are mere athletes, going through the moves, but essentially using thrill and danger rather than beauty. Others fight a different type of bull altogether which is more a display of craft than anything else. This is also widely acknowledged, and better discussed in the Spanish newspaper article I have translated below than I can or wish to here. However, the overall point still holds: la corrida de toros es arte. The bullfight is art.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison


The “artist bullfighter” and the neglected ones of Seville

The idiosyncrasies of each square, each city and each audience build up to a concrete taste that yield a very different image and, if it is possible, a superior one. It is only logical, for these passions grew in differing environments.

Each city and each public seek to forge a taste of their own which presents a distinct image and, if it is possible, a superior one. It is logical that if passions arise at different times, and have different social environments, they support bullfighters with disparate faculties, and, consequently, in Madrid, Bilbao, Pamplona, Bayonne, Nimes or Seville, tastes are not similar when it comes time to appreciate the bullfight. It is a good thing, this wide range of possibilities, and they should be maintained as long as possible, these local peculiarities. How sad it would be all the bullrings totally homogeneous at the time of the final drama should the bullfighters all fight the same. However, the acceptance of these singularities does not mean that one cannot or should not comment on what is behind this spectator behaviour.

In the case of Seville it has tried to promote, in the last decades, a vision that puts all its preferences in artist-bullfighters. According to this point of view, there resides the most specific taste of their passion: to show utmost sensitivity to capture the duende of the final drama with art, and, therefore, to enthrone bullfighters for their capacity to transmit these types of feelings. It is a choice that has worked and perhaps continues to work, with many apologists and supporters, and few detractors. In principle, it fits with an image of a city sensible that not all its ambition is toward power, and thus has selected the trait of bullfighting that it considers more appropriate: the artistic. And interlaced with this option, figures another: Seville lays out that it is decisive to bullfight to provoke an artistic sensation, and the bull must be a collaboration partner, not an opponent to realise the work the bullfighter hopes for. Therefore it does not matter is that the animal is narrowly – rather than well – rounded; i.e. not too large for its age and well-behaved.

Any aficionado with a little knowledge intuits that with an approach of exclusively aesthetic effects there are achieved certain interesting achievements. For example, the merited appreciation that had been projected by a skilled bullfighter like Curro Romero (born 1933), for decades a perfect representative of the Seville ‘figure’ of the artist bullfighter. But also, this choice includes some of the negative effects that the bullring of Seville can still suffer from. One was the public disinterest in the livestock, which lasted for years for years, and became a unchanging fact, almost irrelevant, at the time of choosing the lists of bullfighters, giving the impresario of the bullring and the breeders of the bulls an excellent excuse to mould and break at their convenience, without regard for the opinion of certain spectators unsatisfied by this sparkling style. This situation led to disastrous results, when, in the past fairs, they have been obliged to include some farms that do not cooperate well with the bullfighter.

The worst consequence of this recent commitment, much proclaimed, by the artist-bullfighter, has consisted, above all, in the neglect of the rich variety of models available in the recent bullfighting history of Seville. One does not need to go as far back as Costillares (1743-1800) and Pepe Hillo (1754-1801), to be surprised to appreciate that although, not deliberately, one type of bullfighting has excluded many brave alternatives from the collective memory. Less than a century ago, Joselito (1895-1920) was considered the incarnation of Seville bullfighting excellence. And he was a “deep” bullfighter, full of various abilities and with a prodigious intelligence at the time of mastering and fighting the beasts. But, most significant, was his competition with Belmonte (1892-1962) – so different a bullfighter, but also so from Seville – whom he accepted as an inflammatory phenomenon, complementary and not exclusionary. To see in front of you, on the same afternoon, these two forms of bullfighting was one of the greatest performances for an aficionado of the epcoh.

This capacity to integrate, both fighting and art, of Joselito has remained dormant in Seville. In its wake can be located, with enough merit, many bullfighters, but above all, by noting the recent case of the most unjustly neglected: Paco Camino. How to discern what kind of psychological mechanisms are imposed on the collective memory of a people that allow one bullfighter to endure while others vanish in silence. It is a good question, with no easy answer, if one recalls the bullfighting performed by this bullfighter from Camas. Older aficionados will still remember his dominating wisdom with the bull, his faculties so complete in fighting (rather than art), but its refinement also transmitting a different, clarified art, without concession to the public. However, the changeable caprices of fashion have displaced and hidden him as a model to follow. He merited a greater recognition by the Seville public. However, not the recognition given in the wineshop, always pathetic, nor by those even sadder one, the sculptures [put up in honour of bullfighters]. The greatest prize to his name will be to maintain him as a model of the centralconcepts of bullfighting, and in those the seamless joined forms of fighting and art. He was not merely an artist bullfighter, he was, and is, a deep and complete bullfighter. And example, an exponent, and – what is more – from Seville

Alberto González Troyano, Seville, Spain, May 7th, 2011


About fiskeharrison

English author and journalist, broadcaster and conservationist. Author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, shortlisted for Sports Book Of The Year 2011. Editor & Co-Author of Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona. Author of 'The Unbroken', finalist for Le Prix Hemingway 2016
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One Response to Is bullfighting an art?

  1. Pingback: – The Last Arena

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