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Art and death

10 May 2012

Only in the bullring is there the certainty that death is wrapped in dazzling beauty (Federico Garcia Lorca)

When the great Silverio Pérez, “El Faraón de Texcoco” passed away in 2006, I tried — unsuccessfully — to translated an appreciation of the philosophical matador I had read in one of the Mexican sports magazines.  I could puzzle out the  meanings of the technical terms only with great difficulty, but understanding art criticism written in the language of sports-writing, with a subtext of culture and philosophy not my own, was simply impossible.  I’d only lived in Mexico for about five years then, and … to be quite honest … I am not sure I could undertake such a translation even now.

The world of the bullring is a complex interplay of range management, animal science, sport, Iberian and Latin American history and art.  Whether we chose to participate or turn away in horror, our tendency to a reductionist consideration of the interaction of the natural and the artificial… seeing the world of bulls and men as merely a blood sport, or an art form or (as I like to point out in its defense) an ecologically sound economic practice, or even as a cultural artifact, we miss the meaning when we fail to consider it as a “cultural ecology”.

Richard Finks had already been attending and considering the meaning of tauromaquia for many years when he first started working on Brave Blood: The words… the experience… several years ago.  Considering tauromaquia in all its facets — writing what is as much a lexicon as an apologia — has been the product of years of work.  Considering that Finks has held down an overly full teaching schedule at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara for many years, the serious work of contemplating and explicating the many facets of the world of bulls and men was a tremendously ambitious undertaking.  Naturally, having been written in fugitive hours over several years, the excellent manuscript that emerged was in need of revisiting and revising.  We knew there would be a long editing process ahead of us before Editorial Mazatlán could publish.

We expected, perhaps unreasonably, to have this work out by now, but like any true writer knows, the editorial process is a time to rethink and retool and reshape.  Given the complexity of the subject and the time commitments of both the author and the editor(s) to other necessary (though more mundane) matters,  it perhaps has taken longer than we would like, but as long as was needed.

The art of the bullfight is the art that carves out truth—and the beauty of the creation lies all in the frank, clean lines of its starkly tragic form. The essence of the corrida can be seen as man’s struggle to put the tools of art to the wild, horned mass that is the raw life-force, and even and especially as it charges to dominate it—to make it reveal all the splendor and sadness that is life.

A dancer puts only his reputation on the line when he muffs a move or falls out of step; his long-range future may be jeopardized, but nothing strikes him dead the instant he falters. Even a diamond cutter lives on to breathe his regret should he botch a crucial tap; he may be destined to penniless despair, but it will be only the stone that is reduced to just so many broken pieces in that fateful instant of cleaving—not his body.

With the bullfighter, it is different. One wrong flick of his wrist, one step a fraction off, one instant’s lack of luck—and his life may be cut off faster than he can exclaim “¡Ay!…” – “Oh!…”. One false move in the bullring, and there is death, ready to make it the last.

Of course not everyone who makes blunders in the plaza de toros drops dead on the spot—but anyone who does bungle knows all too well that there is all too often simply no margin for error. No other art form contains so severe a built-in penalty for the artist who in any way, at any second in the performance of the art, might fall short of perfection.

“It is the matter of death that makes all the confusion,” Hemingway said. It is the presence of death that emboldens the art, and the thought of death that can inspire sufficient fear to be the art’s undoing. It is the possibility of death that gives the art its edge of urgency, and it is the reality of death that either underscores or undercuts creation. It is the death of the bull that is the climax of the performance; it is the bull’s death that is the very point of the whole artistic statement the fight is designed to make; and it is precisely this death that gives rise to the controversy and indignation that lead many people to classify the bullfight as at best only within disdainful quotation marks an “art”.

Ultimately, though, death is only a part of it all. An irreplaceable part, for there would be no tragedy without it, no art and no truth; but, still, just part. If the corrida de toros can be considered dramatic art, the drama must be regarded as tragic allegory. Nobility and Bravery are the stars, center-stage. And Death?—on call; in the wings.

Photo: Edgar Mendoza, Ciudad Taurina

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