“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka
“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka: The Art of Starvation or a Meaningless Self-Sacrifice
“A Hunger Artist” is a short story written by the well-known Czech author Franz Kafka. It was first published in the respected German periodical literary magazine Die neue Rundschau in October, 1922 (Gray, 2005, p. 206). In this story, Kafka explores such existential themes as death, isolation, spiritual poverty, and asceticism. Its major subject, though, is the complicated relationship between an artist and the public.
“A Hunger Artist” is written as a retrospective. The narrator speaks in third person from “today”, looking backward several decades to a time when people admired the hunger artist. He was a public performer who fasted for forty days, sitting in a cage and entertaining the curious spectators. It is remarkable that the watchers who ensured that he was not cheating were butchers. In a metaphorical way, all spectators who did not understand the art may be called consumers or butchers. In the twilight of his career, the hunger artist finds himself performing at a local circus. He discovers that people are not interested in the art of starving anymore. It is no longer the fashionable entertainment for the masses. From now on, the public prefers to watch wild animals than look at the old and feeble hunger artist.
In “A Hunger Artist”, Kafka shows that art has become not simply a sacrificial death of the artist, but also an act of self-destruction and physical torture which leads to death. For the hunger artist, his desire for artistic perfection is stronger than physical needs. He considers starvation as a form of art, a unique performance. We will not exaggerate if we say that fasting has become the meaning of the hunger artist’s existence. But the irony is that people are interested only in the entertainment. They are not aware of the price by human suffering. Ultimately, the psychical nature overpowers and the artist dies. Before his death, he has nothing to do but to say to the crowd “Forgive me of everything” (Kafka, 1996).
To develop the theme of the artist’s self-sacrifice, Kafka widely uses allegory. The hunger artist himself is a prototype of the misunderstood artist whose artistic excellence is ignored by the public. His portrait is romanticized. He is the passionate man who ignores the necessity of a regular job and ways to rid of his destitution. He lays down his life on the altar of art. But his self-sacrifice was meaningless, because the crowd only breathed freely when he has gone. The spectators were consumers of culture and nothing more. The real essence of art was a mystery for them.
Also, hunger has a symbolical meaning. We prompt to think that hunger is a pure physical entity. It is an uncontrolled reaction of our body, a group of signals that our stomach sends to our brain. Starvation has its clear physical effects, such as getting bony, skinny and weak. But Kafka shows that the artist has starved for artistic glory. What are the reasons to think so? The artist has a strong desire to be the greatest master of starvation ever. For him, necessity for food is nothing compared to the desire for glory.
The panther conceals symbolical meaning as well. This character is directly opposed to the hunger artist. While the hunger artist looks like a corpse, the panther emanates vitality. Finally, at the end of the story, she takes the place of the hunger artist and settles in his cage. The panther also may be read as a concept of everything that the artist sacrificed for the sake of art: health, strength, joy. According to E. Sicher, the panther satisfies the public hunger for immediate gratification of the body (Sicher, 1999, p. 453). But the answer to the question whether the panther wins out over the artist is ambiguous. Despite her grace and noble look, she is caged.
Kafka, though “A Hunger Artist”, shows that the world’s indifference to the mastery of aesthetics may be pernicious for the vulnerable artist’s soul. Art itself is not a destructive power. But when an artist struggles for recognition and is ready to be entertainment for curious spectators, this kind of self-sacrifice is meaningless, even if it is disguised as a worship to art.
List of References
Gray, Richard T. (2005). A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 206.
Kafka, Franz (1996). The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Donna Freed. New York: Barnes & Noble.
“The Pledge Drive: Ruminations On The Hunger Artist”. Hunger Artists Theatre Company. May 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-29.
Sicher, Efraim. “The Semiotics of Hunger from ‘Le cygne’ to ‘Ein Hungerkünstler.” AS/SA No 8 (1999.12). pp. 452-453.