Tag: Art

An odd shaped mirror

It seems obvious that a country’s culture is reflected in its art. The two are essentially inseparable. Art depicts what matters most to the culture, and changes with the flow of this collective stream of ideas. You assume that if a culture is particularly obsessed with heroism, the natural world, or family, then the art produced will mirror these feelings. Art also has the power to inform culture, guiding budding trends and movements, but it still must innately appeal to people to do this, and therefore must be built on some existing foundations.

I’ve argued quit a lot in this blog (here, here and here) that sport, like art, is a fundamental spoke of any culture. Although it may lack intellectual glamour, for me sport is as important to helping us understand the cultures of the world. What children get up to, what people do in their spare time, what they talk about with friends; know this and in some small way more know the people. So, if sport is fundamental to a culture, does it reflect it? Are sports where individualism rises to the top more popular in countries who favour the deeds of the individual? The charismatic megafauna I thought I found in Hungary suggested so, but by the end of the day I wasn’t so sure. The Indian Premier League, the crash-bang-wallop kaleidoscope of cricket that is insanely popular in India is colourful, loud and energetic. This is much like the India I and many others have experienced. Does the IPL also possess the same inequality? There are certainly haves and have-nots.

VK & PD IPL.png

Now I’m living in Canada, I keep an interested eye on the sports like hockey and baseball, to see if they will tell me anything extra about the country that has taken me in. There is only so much you can learn from watching on TV however, so I had to attend some games in the flesh. I’ve always loved going to sporting events, there is always something visceral, another sense stimulated, when the men and women are pounding up and down, or into each other, right in front of you. Another layer to the live experience is being in a crowd. You, and tens, hundreds or even thousands of people are all tied together by string from your eyes and heart through the ball or fists or feet of the players before you.

So, the live, Canadian experience, come at me. I’ve not been to any ball games, but a couple of hockey games. Ice hockey of course, as if I need to say. The Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL, and the Guelph Storm in the OHL. So friggin’ Canadian, eh, I imagine. Cold and rugged. But enough of the landscape for want of people, does this frenetic game, and the live experience, tell me anything. Well, Canadians are meant to be very tolerant and accommodating, and they’d have to bear all the breaks and distractions served up for us. It was bad at the lower-level Storm game, with cars on the ice and lights and pounding dance music for any or no reason, but it was excruciating at the Leafs game. Watching players standing around idly while some TV advert blared on somewhere, I got the perverse feeling we were not there to watch the players but that they were there to provide entertainment alongside the dancers and explosions and hot-dog adverts. Its altogether quite a passive experience, some applause for every goal but not a great deal more noise than that, the biggest cheer of the Storm game when they score a 5th, rewarding everyone with some free buffalo wings. I enjoyed the matches as a general rule, despite my difficulty following the tiny black puck up and down the ice. The Leafs game especially had a wonderful, tragic air about it, the home team succumbing to a home defeat from a short-handed goal despite young tyro Matthews raging against the mediocrity around him.

Contrast this with the meaty roar that greats Peter Betham’s knock on, sealing Wasps win against Leicester tigers. Or the unfiltered disappointment when Queen’s Park Ranger’s second short on target sinks Wolverhampton Wanderers [what a combination of team names!]. Or the unbounded joy when Cambridge United’s Luke Berry, from down on his backside, knocks anoter nail into the Notts County’s coffin down at the Abbey* on Newmarket road. These provided natural and timely contrast to the two Canadian hockey games. They felt poles apart. One polished and gleaming like the ice, the others a little grubby, but essentially savoury experiences. Nowhere was the contrast more stark than at Cambridge United, where in a tin-roofed terrace behind the goal in the 4th tier of English football the songs and spirit were legion, and the energy marched down the concrete into the legs of the never-will-bes in the pitch. Its an experience that sets me grinning from ear to lobe just thinking on it again.

Does this then inform me of the difference between English and Canadian culture? The English passionate and filled with fervour? Ha, ask around, I think you’ll find we’re famously reserved. Canadians superficial and passive? In a country where people hunt for meat and fur, where everyone has snow tires and tales of digging out of snow drifts? I think not. If you think the English accent is sophisticated, come shout “wanker, wanker, wanker” with us at the way goalie, it might change your perceptions. Certainly settles which of the two countries is more polite.

In fact, out in the icy oval there was a frivolousness and a gaudiness that I don’t think you see in other aspects of life here. Maybe its that US of American influence, perverting the natural order of things**. Maybe what this reflects is the diversity of ideas that are allowed to coexist here, even if they grate or grind somewhat. So it is allowed to be like this, rather than an overt expression of a people. Because if these experiences are meant to mirror what a country is like, it fails to reflect half the things I’m fond of. A mirror that’s got bent all out of shape.





*it may have another name now, but it will always be the Abbey

**of course it is also possible that I am attributing the things I like to Canadian and as Canadian values, and the things I dislike as American, and so casting America the role of pantomime villain is has often assumed recently. There are certainly Canadians who are jerks, and plenty of lovely, cultured Americans who too dislike the things I’ve mentioned here.


So, I went to a bullfight

Yes, as the title indicates, I have decided not to beat around the bush, and come out with it. I am travelling around seeing lots of different sports, and while in Spain I felt I had a duty to see “Los Toros”. Because it is controversial, because it straddles sport, art and something else, and because blood sports like this used to be common across Europe , and are still common in much of the world. Therefore, it seemed necessary to have a look at one, especially in a country where, in some quartets, it is feted as a high art form. In others it is banned outright. An challenging beast of an event to be dealing with. I am not alone in dealing with challenging beasts, for the matadors, to give them some credit, are taking on animals of 4-5 years old, weighing 500-600kgs. The bull pounds out into the corrida (arena), all taut muscle and powerful hoof beats. Initially it does not face the matador, but is worked by a series of supporting “players” with capes, who goad the bull into charges, before hiding behind wooden screens. After this the bull faces the picadores, mounted combatants who stab into the bulls shoulders and neck with a short-bladed spear. The horse is solidly protected by a large, thick cover. I was told that the horses didn’t use to be so well protected; it must’ve been a grisly sight. Instead, although we have blood of the bull in show, there is little gore, the primary purpose of these sections to tire the bull as it chases shadows or attempts to lift the horse. I’ll say now that many of the technicalities I know were gleaned from Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon”. It is quite challenging to understand the purpose of much of what is on show otherwise. The bull chases some colourful men with capes, it charges a mounted man it can never defeat; it all seems very ritualised. Hardly the blood and thunder contest I had expected. Perhaps this is some kind of art, or something else, after all.

A quick parade before the action starts

After the picadores, the banderillas. These men bound towards the bull at an angle while it charges them, attempting to stick 2 wooden stakes into the muscle over the shoulder. In total 6 are placed, although not all find their mark, leaving the banderilla to scurry for cover. The stakes are gaudily coloured, creating a strange contrast against the dark bloody back and sides if the bull. Again however I see very little contest. The bull does not catch these fleet footed men, no do I think it is meant to. Instead, this further helps weaken the bull, preparing it for the matador. This is who comes next, stepping into the corrida, relatively alone. Facing a bloody, slightly tired, probably terrified, but still strong and angry bull.

The banderilla plays his part

Before the start I was walking to my allocated gate, when I came across a scrum of people. Eyes all aligned towards some external entrance. This was the crowd awaiting the matadors, the dashing idols of this “sport”. They even have their own twitter accounts… Like the fans gathered for the arrival of the team bus, huddled at the team tunnel, we stretched and strained and held aloft cameras to try and catch a glimpse. In a flash they were there, shaking hands, smiling, waving, bright-gold costumes glinting in the sun, and then they were gone. Apparently the top matadors can receive €80,000 a fight; we certainly received the superstar treatment.

Acting the part

Back in the corrida , again it was the matadors dishing out the treatment, using his cape to slip pass the charging bull: left, right, fleet plated together unmoving, even on his knees, all to the ohs and ahs and gathering applause of the crowd. This to me was more like some art, like a theatre performance by a talented actor, than a sporting contest. The crowd too put me more in mind of a theatre or opera crowd than a football or tennis crowd. Exceedingly smartly dressed, generally older, aficionados rather than supporters. To contrast with my Morocco football fans, watching from their seats rather than spurring their team or player on. This video shows it: the 2nd matador, Jose Manuel Manzanares, goes in for a clean sword placement to finish the fight. He is successful, and as the other cape bearers move in to stop the bull charging the matador again before it dies, the crowd applauds voraciously. They rise to their feet and wave white handkerchiefs to show their approval. How very gentile. 

It is not always so gentile. In this first fight the matador performed a great many passes, too many in fact, for the crowd started to whistle and jeer. Then when the sword finally came it was not a quick death. The bull staggered, floundered, and after it finally did fall it somehow managed to rise to its feet again, the death prolonged by minutes. Curiously, the crowd around me seemed to pay this no real heed. I guess if you pay to see death you accept some irregularities from the animal that struggles against it.

In general I was surprised to see so much variation in how well the matadors dealt death. One smooth and effective, the crowd loved him. Another, although the crowd did not favour his style he killed with a similar effectiveness. But the 3rd was simply bad at it. A young man, at only 23, he was clearly a bit if a darling of the crowd, and they greatly applauded his work with the bull and the cape. But his first strike with the sword, a jar against bone, and he was undone. Now in a vulnerable position, the bull caught him and tossed him through the air. Hearts leapt to mouths. Now in a tight ball on the floor, the bull stampeded over him, and I thought I was about to watch a man die. The crowd leaned closer. Was I happy about this? If it was a sport, a contest I was after, then surely both sides losing should be possible. In which case the death of the matador would strengthen bullfighting’s position as a sport. So did I want his death?
Thankfully, the watching cape-bearers sprung into action, diverting the bull off the prone man and he was saved. Somewhat less thankfully, he then went back and, after a couple of attempts, finished the job. He also made a meal of killing his 2md bull (each matador kills 2 bulls per corrida, giving the crowd 6 deaths in total), leaving me in doubt as to his ability. It also left me in no doubt as to the status of this event. There is no genuine contest, man is not against bull, nor are the matadores competing against each other. Whether then what this dance between man and animal produces some kind of art, that is up to you.

I watched after the fight where the matador was caught by the bull as he limped, grimaced and crept round to the infirmary. Hand clutched to his side, pained etched across his face, gaudy costume torn. You could see the crowd as he passed crane closer, peering at him. What’s in it for them I wondered. They had nearly seen him die. Perhaps the death is what they were after. To be close, to lean in, to pull anguished faces and gape as he passes. To catch the tang of death off him as he comes by. The matadors both knowingly put themselves in danger, close to death, and also deal it. They wear the shroud of death closely. Is that what the crowd were after, to pass close by this messenger of death? To feel close to the rawness of it, but ultimately safe from it? The matador as well, is the draw for him the closeness of death, with one wrong step and a swish of the bulls horns.

It seems likely. Closeness to death, or at least risk of injury, is a common aspect of many sports. I myself, at 26, no longer play rugby or football due to a debilitating knee injury picked up in the former. Such things are not uncommon. A few days after the bullfight I was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, watching climbers tackle various routes. Yes they have ropes and harnesses and a partner keeping them safe, but accidents happen and falls are never that far away. Climbing is very technically and physically demanding, but it also has that inherent danger to it that makes it, maybe like the bullfight, such an enticing prospect.

It is hard to deny the common element if danger, but it is curious we find it so attractive. Would ancestral (wo)man who enjoyed being that little bit closer to death have some competitive advantage? Perhaps it helped the essential hunt of prey, especially the larger, more dangerous beasts. Perhaps this was essential to success for our ancestors. Perhaps this is what the bull fight apes. But as the bull was dragged out of the arena, to the sound of music, applause and the waving of white handkerchiefs, sunlight gleaming from sunglasses and flashing off fascinators, it was quite hard to picture anything essential about the spectacle at all.