A Hunger Artist
On my first date with an artist who would eventually become my husband, I said, “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” I am also an artist and I wanted him to know, from the beginning, that I not only live for my work, but that I need an audience to view that work. Eventually my husband gave me “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka. It tells the story of a man who performs for an audience by fasting—starving himself. The hunger artist’s ability to fast has become his greatest expression of human endurance and is a dramatic depiction of sacrifice for an ideal. But the “impresario” (or handler) limits his fasting to 40 days, which stymies the artist’s desire to express his artistic ability to its greatest limit. The impresario believes that the audience will lose interest after a certain amount of time. When the fashion changes and the impresario can no longer make money from the performance, the hunger artist joins a circus, where he is relegated to the status of a caged side-show spectacle, not only apart from the actual circus performance, but placed next to the animals for viewing during intermissions:
In any case, he had the animals to thank for the crowds of visitors among whom, now and then, there could also be one destined for him. And who knew where they would hide him if he wished to remind them of his existence and, along with that, of the fact that, strictly speaking, he was only an obstacle on the way to the menagerie.
A small obstacle, at any rate, a constantly diminishing obstacle. People became accustomed to thinking it was strange that in these times they would want to pay attention to a hunger artist, and with this habitual awareness the judgment on him was pronounced. He might fast as well as he could—and he did—but nothing could save him anymore. People went straight past him. Try to explain the art of fasting to anyone! If someone doesn’t feel it, then he cannot be made to understand it.
Eventually everyone passes by him without a glance. In time a circus worker in need of an empty cage finds the hunger artist in a corner of his cage, covered in hay, having died of starvation and neglect.
Critics differ about the meaning of this allegory—some saying it’s about the hunger artist’s asceticism, his “saintly or even Christ-like” characteristics. But I can’t imagine an artist reading this story who doesn’t identify with the character—one who embodies a creative ideal with passion and commitment. At best he finds an interested audience—though perhaps a fickle and misunderstanding one. But at worse, rejection and finally, fatally, indifference. An artist lives in a private world of their own making. There is a striving for greatness beyond what has been seen or done before. An artist’s work needs an audience to see, hear, and receive it—to acknowledge its existence and achievement of greatness. Can this acknowledgement ever be enough? Can it ever live up to the ideal? No level of attention can ever satisfy this fundamental need. Kafka has created an artist who lives for his work and dies striving for excellence—doing the only thing that has any meaning for him. Is it extreme? Do most artists die a gruesome death because of their commitment to an ideal? I’d say that most artists strive for this transcendence every day. Striving for what is ultimately unattainable, they die over and over again, in some form or another.