Bullfighting – art, sport or simply barbaric?

We live in an interesting time. It seems difficult to imagine a day in which we aren’t slapped in the eye by disasters that befall mankind. We are preoccupied by a diet of WikiLeaks/news of carnage in the Middle East/Brexit Blues and a political refugee crisis that continues to test the moral compass of the lovely Angela Merkel.

Then there are the voices of wary professors and aggrieved student activists that continue to proliferate in the South African news cycle.

My overarching compassion lies with those who do not have a voice.

I was seriously depressed, therefore, to learn this week that Spain’s constitutional court has overturned a ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, declaring it unconstitutional. (The ban, not the bullfighting.)

The court protested that bullfighting was “part of Spanish heritage” and therefore any decision on banning it could only be taken by central government.

The timing is flawless. This year happens to be the 30th anniversary of Pedro Almodovar’s Matador. Almodovar – the enfant terrible of Spanish cinema – is the director of six of the top thirteen Spanish movies exported to the States.

In Matador (1986) a former bullfighter becomes obsessed with re-enacting the ‘lust in the dust’ climax of Duel in the Sun (1946) with his new love, another serial killer obsessed with bullfighting.

Spanish film-makers return time and again to the brutality of Spaniards, the animality of their conduct, insisting on the use of the same broad metaphor – human relations as a hunt.

Spanish cinema routinely – most distressingly (for me) displaces violence on to surrogate victims, especially animals, children and women.

Film scholar, Marsha Kinder recognises that the ‘hunt’ – or killing spree in Matador  “blatantly eroticizes violence.” Thus embodying a uniquely Spanish expression of fascism that is underpinned by virility, blood, sex and death.

Spanish intellectuals abhorred bullfighting for its reliance on regressive machismo as it catered to the basest instincts of their working-class compatriots.

Victor Barrio, a 29-year old Spaniard could have easily been cast in one of Almodovar’s movies. He was a real-life leading matador that died earlier this year after being gored during a televised bullfight. He was caught while trying to lure the beast using his cape in a manoeuvre known as “muletazo”.

Many of us hoped that the death of a handsome and stylish bullfighter – the first in three decades in Spain – might finally bring an end to this barbaric practice.

***

Many cultures, civilizations and mythologies have sprung from the bull – Taurus is his Latin name.

According to Greek myth Zeus is transformed into a bull in order to get close to Europa and seduce her. After getting Europa’s attention, Zeus carried her on his back to Crete where he revealed his presence. Zeus and Europa had a romantic relationship in which three sons were born, the most important being Minos, the famous king of Crete, half man, half bull. Later on, Zeus showed his respect to the bull and placed it in the night sky.

The bull is also the sign of the stock exchange, of stability and strength.

There is even a reference to the bull in the Bible. In Numbers God himself is compared to an ox by Balaam : God who brought them forth out of Egypt is for them like the lofty horns of the wild-ox (Numbers 23:22).

***

I have been to a bullfight and let the record show I was sickened by it. I am happy to report – though cynical – that the world-famous Running of the Bulls in Pamplona is even under threat.

The Running of the Bulls (in Spanish encierro, from the verb encerrar, means to fence in, lock/shut up) involves running in front of a small group of bulls that have been let loose on a course of sectioned-off town streets.

Spanish tradition says the run began in North Eastern Spain during the early 14th century. While transporting cattle in order to sell them at the market, men would try and hurry them up by using fear and violence.

The encierro begins with runners signing a benediction three times, each time being sung in Spanish and Basque.

So it is that on the 7th of July I found myself perched on a barrier awaiting the spectacle. I am filled with dread and anticipation.

An old man besides me strikes up a conversation.

“You know before 1974 no women were allowed to run. Every year hundreds of people are injured.”

“Really?”

“You like animals?”

“Yes!”

“What are you doing here? These people don’t know or care what happens to these poor animals!”

I look at him. A leathery face and gnarled hands. He must be a man of the soil. His eyes are flint-sharp.

“But the brochures say that it is a fun festival,” I protest lamely.

“You wait. You see.” He shuffles off.

***

At precisely 8 in the morning, after a night of carousing and revelry, the locals and tourists from all over the world, run through the palisaded streets just ahead of the bulls. Onlookers hang from the rooftops to watch.

There is a brief respite from the mayhem during which the crowds stagger through the knee high piles of plastic cups and rubbish. They gather at bars to drink sweet, hot chocolate and eat sticky pastries.

After lunch the fiesta resumes.

As Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises:

“It kept up and the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences….”

The processions, the puppets, the hideous masks…I am starting to feel as though I am in a Goya painting from which there is no escape.

It’s a savage, brutal ritual in which animals are terrified and killed for man’s amusement.

Before the fight, horses are blindfolded to prevent them from bolting from the bullring in terror. They are often injured during the course of the violence.

A picador on horseback plunges a metal lance into the bull’s back. They will twist and gouge many lances into the animal’s flesh to impair its ability to move.

While the banderilleros and picadors torment the bull, the matador preens and postures and performs rococo choreography; the veronica, and the fauna.

With each move, the dignity of the animal is systematically broken down and his life-force is drained from him.

Still alive, the bull lies on the ground bleeding profusely. The spectacle is over, but the bull’s suffering is not.

He is dragged across the arena by his feet. Then he is hauled up by a hoof. When he is suspended thus, his throat will be cut and he will be left to bleed to death.

Thousands of other bulls will be killed in the same, slow, terrifying way and painful way, all in the name of tradition.

Some will aver that the Corrida de Toros is a spectacle, an art, the essence of all things Iberian.

During the Franco era, bullfighting was supported by the state and promoted as an authentic emblem of Spanish culture.

Sacrificial violence was institutionalised and bullfighting became a national art.

Bullfighting reports don’t typically appear in the sports section of newspapers in Spain – instead they share the culture pages with art, cinema and theatre.

Hemingway wrote: “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.”