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Is Bullfighting Art, Or is it Torture?

On December 6, the city of Quito, Ecuador celebrated 478 years since its Spanish foundation differently than it ever has before. For the first time in over 50 years, no bullfights were held at the Plaza de Toros Quito. Since its inauguration in 1960, toreros of national and international renown had gathered under the equatorial sun for the yearly Feria de Quito Jesús del Gran Poder, perhaps the most important event of its kind throughout the Americas, but on November 15 its organizers announced its cancellation.

Outside of the Iberian Peninsula, southern France and a few countries in Latin America, bullfighting is not something that is commonly encountered. Perhaps the most lasting impression of it for the American public came by way of Warner Bros. in the 1953 cartoon Bully for Bugs, which is why it may surprise many readers to know that bullfighting remains a matter of cultural importance and impassioned debate.

 

The cancellation of the Feria de Quito comes about a year and a half after a referendum in which Ecuadorians were asked, among other things, whether public spectacles whose end is the death of an animal should be prohibited. The measure gained majority approval in the capital, in response to which the municipality outlawed the public killing of bulls. That year, the feria was held and bullfights went on much like before except the bull was not killed by the matador, but unceremoniously removed to be slaughtered just outside the arena. Because the traditional conclusion to a corrida could not be performed, many bullfighters boycotted the feria and ticket sales plummeted. This year, owing to these same inhospitable conditions to bullfighting, the organizers didn’t find it worth their while to even try to hold the event.

The demise of bullfighting in Quito follows what may well have been the beginning of the end for the tradition: the ban on bullfighting in Catalonia. In 2010, the Catalan parliament voted to ban the practice effective January 1, 2012. Although the Canary Islands had done the same in 1991, nothing had ever marked such a change in Spanish culture, whose identity had been so steeped in tauromachy.

In Catalonia, the ban was said to obey to the region’s separatist tendencies and in Quito to an assortment of similarly political circumstances, but at the heart of the matter lies a struggle for cultural definition. Art or torture? What is bullfighting anyway?

Watch for yourself. A bullfight speaks for itself. This is José Tomás, a master in his art, in a performance in September which was said to have elevated him to the “pantheon of the greats.” Perhaps you will see all the grace and bravery that aficionados see, or maybe you’ll just see an animal being harassed and in pain.

 

Ernest Hemingway had much to say on the matter; in a 1932 New York Times review of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s treatise on bullfighting, R.L. Duffus writes, “But bull-fighting, though as Mr. Hemingway says, ‘a decadent art in every way,’ is an art, indeed, ‘if it were permanent it could be one of the major arts.’" It was an important source of inspiration for Picasso, who depicted bullfighting throughout his career, capturing its beauty and brutality in all manners of his stylistic evolution (see work from 1890, 1900, 1912, 1933, 1934, 1945, 1955, 1970 for example). Likewise, artists like Goya, Manet, Miro, Dali and more recently Botero have made it the subject of their work, and I could go on citing other creators of culture who’ve expressed admiration for bullfighting. 

Though bullfighting’s presence and relevancy in the arts may be well established, it has little to do with the ethical issues that the practice brings up. Unquestionably, an animal will suffer and die at the hands of a matador, and if we consider this to be unnecessary and cruel, then perhaps a more enlightened society is one without bullfighting. The growing number of bans seem to suggest more and more people see it this way.

Bullfighting’s artistic worth and its ethical transgressions present a perfectly intractable problem. I know this first hand: despite growing up loving it, I haven’t attended a bullfight in over a decade because of a growing concern for ethical behavior. Today, I’m still torn, and it’s not just that I can still see beauty in this cruel thing. 

The end of bullfighting is hailed as a triumph for animal rights, but I wonder if this is ultimately right. Bullfighting confronts us with death, with the fact that in the interaction between man and nature, bloody sacrifices are made. In its absence, we simply continue living more and more abstracted from nature, doing it far greater harm because we can ignore its role in our lives. Isn’t it the purpose of every hidden camera video of a factory farm to raise awareness of the death we consume? To show that the neatly laid out and largely blood free steak we buy at the supermarket was a living being? If bullfighting is an artistic reminder of the reality of the exchange society makes with nature, was it the real enemy in the fight for animal rights? Are we better off without it?

Hemingway wrote, "The only place where you could see life and death, i. e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring.” I guess we’d rather be blithe these days. In any case, for death, blood and sacrifice, and all things passé, we have the movies. Meanwhile, everyone can go back to eating burgers and steaks; the fiesta brava is over, the bulls are safe.

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