Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

10 Aug 2012

(Short Story) A Hunger Artist by: Franz Kafka

(Reaction) Performance Art by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Franz Kafka.

Kafka's short story illustrates many interactions between the artist and his art as well as between the artist and the world.

All of these interactions arise from the startling central image of the short story. What is immediately curious about the artist is that his art, his performance, literally revolves around hunger. This is a nifty image for highlighting the tortured nature of an artist, ie. someone who wastes away for his art (as a hunger artist inherently must).

The artist and his art

It is clear that the artist in Kafka's tale is driven by a hunger (pun intended) he cannot quench. He admits morosely that he devoted his life to starvation because I couldn't find a food which tasted good to me. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle out of myself and eaten to my heart's content, like you and everyone else. Art then is a salve for the unquenchable; nothing satisfies and this is what drives the performance of the artist.

There is an inherent sadness to the artist of the tale. The impetus of art is a lack, a dissatisfaction with the world (If I had found that...). Yet art is not an answer to the lack, it does not replace what the artist is searching for (and can never find). This continuing dissatisfaction is evident even when the artist is at the pinnacle of his career, feted and admired by all, ...for many years apparently in the spotlight, honoured by the world, but for all that, his mood was usually gloomy, and it kept growing gloomier all the time, because no one understood how to take it seriously.

The artist and the world

This dismay with the world does not stop the artist from displaying his art. Indeed, the artist has a profound need to perform, to have other people witness his performance.

Inevitably where there is a crowd there is commerce, there is lucre to be made even in the spectacle of starvation. Nor does the artist reject the commercial or sensationalist aspect of his performance. Indeed, the maximum length of each show is determined not by the capabilities of the artist (he is adamant that he can go on for much longer) but the realities of the viewing public, The impresario had set the maximum length of time for the fast at forty days... Experience had shown that for about forty days one could increasingly whip up a city's interest by gradually increasing advertising, but that then the public turned away - one could demonstrate a significant decline in popularity.

Art then in Kafka's story does not occur in a vacuum, independent of the outside word. Indeed, art is very much subject to the whims of a fickle public. Certainly the artist can continue starving in obscurity but there is a societal aspect to his art; he must be witnessed starving. As he says plaintively at the end, I always wanted you to admire my fasting. While the art remains the same, the love of the crowd does not. Time passes the hunger artist by, so much so that he ends his life in obscurity.

Interestingly while the artist needs an audience there is an acknowledgement that an audience can never fully appreciate art - only the artist can do so. This is revealed by the thoughts of the artist who, even at the height of his popularity, felt that what he was attempting failed and that the crowd could not appreciate this failure, The hunger artist himself was the only one who could know that and, at the same time, the only spectator capable of being completely satisfied with his own fasting... people dispersed, and no one had the right to be dissatisfied with the event, no one except the hunger artist - he was always the only one.

In the end, this tension between an artist and his work vis-a-vis the work's reception in the world is resolved on the side of the importance of the work over anything else. The hunger artist succumbs to his art, ...in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast. To the last, bereft of an audience or fame, the artist still clings to his art, his hunger.

Review:

An online copy of the Hunger Artist can be found here.

This story reads like a parable from some demented fairy tale. I think this description came to mind because the hunger artist has many parallels with other unfortunate characters in parables: he suffers (perhaps needlessly) and his fate is ultimately woeful.

And finally, as in most parables, it is easy to draw some purported lesson from the character's suffering. Whether this lesson is truly cogent, or in some ways justifies the suffering of the character, is (for the parable) besides the point.

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