Art, Mor(t)ality and Enforced Empathy: On Some Photographs of Bullfighting

A set of photographs from the NYT:

It is possible to see beauty in everything and to use one’s skills to show that beauty to the world, to create a consensus of awe at beauty that partakes of the universal human because it tries to touch mortality. These photographs come close to doing a little of that, but they do not achieve beauty or tragedy, let alone sublimity. They cannot lay claim to art, they are merely reportage.

We need only look around to know that anything at all can be made to appear beautiful–pictures of war, tortured pilgrims (anyone, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, you name it), Christ, a tsunami victim, the eyes of a refugee girl, a surgeon’s skill…anything. One could do so by erasure, by keeping or putting out of sight that which is ugly and torturous (cattle deaths in India, industrial farm conditions anywhere, that permit horrendous torture for human consumption), that which is a necessary means to a pure end (cruelty before Muharram sacrifices), or that which is merely inconvenient for pleasure.

Sometimes this is necessary. An artist may use one side of a vision to illuminate the other or the whole, to raise public awareness and their threshold of understanding. But, it is precisely because so much can be done to erase the unpleasant that those who have the privilege of being ‘on the spot’ must not do so carelessly. Art that touches death bears an ethical responsibility to Art to remain holistic, and a responsibility to Life itself, for Life is both the clay and the potter’s wheel and the potter is only as much as clay and wheel.

An artist’s work becomes sublime when it encompasses the human and the mortal, rather than merely presenting or examining them. In that work the vast perpetual canvas of life and death appears clearly and is yet somehow surpassed; the seer and the seen, artist and canvas, are humble before the vision even as they rise above it. The sense of the sublime is a sacrificial fire, rising from ashes and tears.

All cultures celebrate a ritual victory over death and evil in their own ways. Ritual binds the community in action and symbol, giving the movement of the hearts and bodies of a people a circular direction of will; to sustain belief and identity an act if performed, and the act restores identity to the people.

I understand the code of the observer, the artist, the ‘informant’; I understand the idea of cultural difference, the ethical dilemma of readers casting the first stone when their own cultures/peoples/countries are hardly blameless…

But does this erase the dogged pain of an animal anywhere–in the bullring, in regulated hunting grounds, in a farmyard, in an industrial cattle pen, a broiling truck on the highway, in a slaughterhouse, in a home where it is benignly neglected or willfully abused? Death comes to us all, but what justifies a long-drawn-out death, inflicted at will, repeatedly, on so many, and for the sake of so little (taste, accessories, pleasure), fo so much collective guilt? What justifies our claim to be ‘rational,’ ‘evolved’ human beings if we cannot be merciful?

Relative good and neutral good are good positions to have and practice, but only in the interim. For some of us, it is impossible to stand by and not speak up, for it would be intolerable to be the silent majority who facilitate so much pain to any creature alive.

It is said that more evil happens because good people stay silent and fail to object than because bad people actually perpetrate it. Every time we condone needless pain or evil using the convenient veil of ‘difference,’ we choose to forego chance to avert the proliferation of pain.

Does this mean Spain should/will ban bullfights? That all animals will be killed cleanly and quickly? Not likely anytime soon. Human beings are capable of incredible cruelty to their own species, and are possibly the only species to take so much pleasure in devising torture for their own; it is hardly likely that they will regard other creatures as worthy of mercy. So it is likely that blood will continue to be shed, in one way or another, next door to us every day, hidden from the smooth surface of our minds. We will bring our children up in this make-believe world, insulated from pain and the unprofitable causes, and thus make them more oblivious to the suffering of their brethren than we have been. The sum total of the good in the world will be drowned by the willful crimes. So much for humanity.

There is a moment in Arthur Clarke’s _Childhood’s End_ when the overlords of earth mandate that bullfighting be stopped by a simple deed: at the moment that the first spear is cast, the entire audience is made to feel its pain in their own vitals. That single incidence of enforced empathy accomplishes what hundreds of years of political efforts and awareness raising could not. I believe that is the answer: to really stand in others’ shoes is a prerequisite of doing unto others what (good) one would have them do unto us.

Possible in science fiction, impossible yet in reality. But features like this one in the NYT makes me wish…as I remember why Alfred Nobel invented dynamite [“wish to produce a substance or device of such frightful efficacy for a wholesale devastation that war should become altogether impossible”]… a life for a life rings hollow…I struggle against despair: is the human species so immature that we cannot choose to regulate our behavior of our own free will before we must be made to do so?


On the bank of a river, a dry reed stalk
fire will burn it, metal will cut it, water will not wet it
out of its space will come its musica straw man on fire feels nothing
but the hopes of a people burn with it
hollow man, house of myth

a river becomes many at its mouth
not like a branched tree that remains itself
but like a man who loses himself in his offspring
and believes becoming is death and continuity

there is comfort in the changing unity of the sea and the shore
in the abstract
but a man, moved too much like a straw
becomes husk, driftwood

we are neither trees nor rivers and cannot spread ourselves
we pass, instead, from one place to another
seeking alms of misfortune.