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The Cruelty Inside the Beauty

I remember watching my first bullfights on Spanish television. Joselito, to be exact. Watching, I saw the unmistakable beauty in that orchestrated dance between hombre y toro. I also witnessed its cruelty.  The cover of this month's Juxtapoz magazine brought those memories back. Escif, also known as "Valencia's greatest street artist," really did put 1000 words into this image.

One of my wandering days in Madrid led me to Ventas, the city's bull ring / plaza.  It was empty, and the entrance was open. I walked in, and into a thick wall of smell. It was beyond the smells of animals, feces, sweat, or blood, yet it combined these into one unmistakable death-scent. While there may be great aesthetic value in the bullfight, it is still murder. The bull will be killed; perhaps the matador, as well--there is always that risk. But the bull will be killed and dragged from the ring, its blood smearing and soaking the sand.

Now, travel from Madrid's Plaza de Toros to the Great Pyramid or any one of Egypt's awe-inspiring edifices. Tourists flock to them by the millions. They represent great achievement, deep history, and in many cases, unique beauty.  There is a case for them as scientific and astronmical achievements, as well. But they also represent power and oppression. They represent men masquerading as divine gods. They represent forced labor. They, like many of the ancient sites we revere all over the world, are a testament to cruelty. A cruelty that created order and certainty, no doubt. While there can be great benefit in order and certainty, there can also be great danger in the pair. World War II taught us where an unbending desire for order and certainty can and did lead: to the concentration camps.

I'm all for beautiful architecture, spaces, and rituals, but can they truly be beautiful if they envelop, encourage, or are built on cruelty?

I watch the anti-goverment protesters in Tahrir (Liberation) Square on television, people who live in the shadow of the pyramids--literally and figuratively. Who live afraid of plainclothes police, who are worn out by poverty--poverty where the sick cannot be healed, the broken cannot be fixed, and the lost item cannot be replaced. There is not only nothing extra--there is also never enough. It takes energy to protest...from where do they draw this energy? From deep inside, from the human soul, which can be a great source of beauty--in both its humanity and its divinity. The hands that built Chartres Cathedral were scarred and calloused, but no less beautiful than its soaring windows.

I devoured Egyptian history in school, enjoyed every minute of it--and loved the art. If I'd learned about these rulers, with my teachers using the word "dictators" rather than "pharoahs," would I have been as taken in by the glory of the art their ages produced? Yes, I think so. Who can avert their eyes from the perfected bust of Queen Nefertiti or the glowing sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun? Not I!  But even as I gaze, I need to remind myself that "not all that glitters is gold," and that true beauty is without cruelty. There are other beauties, yes, but the true one does not embrace what is cruel to life in human or other form.

John Keats wrote that there is truth in beauty. Rather than take that as a caveat, we need to use the statement to look deeply into what is beautiful, to be sure that we see the truth behind or within beauty--a truth which may not be beautiful at all. Yet, as Keats also wrote, truth is beauty. Truth is also the only certainty and order that ever has been and ever will be.


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