Orson Welles on bullfighting as an art

Antonio Ordóñez, Matador of Ronda, and Orson Welles

Since bullfighting has moved from under the auspices of Spain’s Ministry of the Interior to that of the Ministry of Culture, I thought I would give the view of bullfighting as an artform by one of the greatest geniuses in the world of performing arts, Orson Welles, as recounted to the travel writer James Michener.

In case you have forgotten, Welles produced, directed, wrote and starred in Citizen Kane, usually considered the greatest film ever made, aged 25. And in case you didn’t know – i.e. you have not read my book, Into The Arena – seven years before that he briefly trained at as a bullfighter in Seville (as did I). His ashes are enterred at the ranch of his great friend, the matador Antonio Ordóñez (the house now belongs to his grandson, my friend the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez.)

Here, he is describing the greatest of the Seville matadors at the time of the interview. The Seville matador today to whom Curro Romero is most similar today is Morante de la Puebla, whose photo I enclose at the end.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

from Chapter VI: Sevilla

As to the bullfights, one evening I dined with Orson Welles, that scowling giant who in his youth had trained to be a matador, and he said in his rumbling voice, ‘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.

Curro Romero, Matador of Seville, performs a ‘veronica’

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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.

Ole… Continue reading