John Walsh: Discussions are raging over whether bullfighting and siestas are art forms

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

Goodness, what odd things pass for artworks these days. I don't mean the bits of Blu-Tack that find themselves in the running for the Turner Prize, I mean whole sporting activities or personal behaviour patterns that are dragged into the Palace of Art.

In Spain, the regional government in Madrid is sick of animal rights campaigners complaining about bullfighting. For God's sake, they've replied, it's not the ritual slaughter of a hapless animal for the amusement of grinning sadists. It's... It's... I know, it's an item of "special cultural value" that needs protecting – an art form, like the city's historical monuments.

The animal rights people responded by saying, OK then, if that's art, so is the siesta. A lawyer called Daniel Dorado has applied to make the Spanish afternoon nap an art form too. Like bullfighting, he says, it's "a cultural fact of special relevance and significance, an art which deserves protection". Like bullfighting, it's been part of Spanish culture for centuries – but threatened by modern Spanish managers, who'd rather their employees didn't crash out on a sofa after lunch every day.

While this ingenious debate rages, look what's happened in Belgium. The owner of a Bruges sex shop is enraged that the government is charging his peep show VAT at 21 per cent, rather than the 6 per cent they usually charge for cinemas. OK, he says, maybe it's more a cubicle than an Odeon, and, yes, it houses only one person at a time, but it's still a flipping cinema, and therefore warrants the reduced-VAT rate. With rat-like cunning, the Belgian tax authorities have classified the cubicle as an "automated recreation device", like a video game, or (I guess) a vibrator.

The sex-shop owner is appealing. He insists that watching adult entertainment in a single-person cubicle has "a cultural or social purpose", as a cinema has. And the box of Kleenex is obviously in there just in case there's a, you know, really culturally moving moment...


I'm puzzled by the academics at Surrey University who have investigated the convention of putting a man's name before a woman's in correspondence ("Mr and Mrs John and Sarah Jones") and have concluded that it's a "reinforcing of gender stereotypes that emerged in the 16th century". They bring up Shakespeare's perniciously titled Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra to advance their theory. But was it just sexist convention that made him arrange the names that way?

It's nonsense. The first name in each play title is that of the character who steers the drama, who enters the action (in Verona, or Rome) and encounters a transforming Other, with whom he falls in love. Juliet does not encounter Romeo. All the dramatic action is one way ("Oh she doth teach the torches to burn bright...") until she coolly reciprocates in the balcony scene. Likewise Antony isn't more important than Cleopatra in the Bard's most beautiful play – he's the hero who takes the audience with him into the action. It would be a lesser play if it was called Cleopatra and Antony, and began with Cleopatra in her boudoir, ordering her maids around.

When, in late 16th-century literature, the woman is the dramatically dominant figure, she comes first in any yoking of names. We speak of "Dido and Aeneas", rather than the other way around, because of Marlowe's play about the Queen of Carthage. The same goes for "Hero and Leander" (poem by Marlowe, burlesque by Nashe) because Hero, the priestess of Aphrodite, is the passionate centre of the story. Modern versions of Ovid's tale about Echo and Narcissus prefer the tragic chatterbox wood nymph to the preening solipsist who could love only himself, so she comes first in the titles.

History is full of heroic couples whose names are yoked together in a way that reflects their status vis-à-vis each other. Bonnie and Clyde suggests that Bonnie was the dominant partner (or just the more attractive one). "Fanny and Johnny" acknowledged the mad-eyed Ms Cradock's dominance of the screen. "Madonna and Guy" left people in no doubt which celebrity was in charge, just as the thousand Renaissance paintings called Madonna and Child reminded viewers that, in certain respects, the mother was more important than the God she bore. When it comes to strong figures in art titles, it's often Ladies First.