A Hunger Artist, Starving for Art’s Sake

Nathan Le Master
October 4, 2016

Adapt or risk marginalization; this is the main premise to Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist. Taking the starving artist trope literally, it is a sad story about an individual’s dying art of self inflicted starvation, and the consequences of remaining stubbornly fixed to your craft.

The artist initially brings out massive crowds of onlookers of all ages. He is exhibited in a cage that tours throughout Europe, where audiences gawk at him in wonder and admiration. He fasts for 40 day intervals–the longest the public can go before interest starts to wane. At the end of the 40 days, the towns throw a massive festival to honor the artist, full of music, fanfare, and speeches. While this should elate the artist and make him feel genuinely appreciated, these days create the opposite effect. The artist muses that if the “public pretended to admire him so much, why should it have so little patience with him; if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn’t the public endure it?” He knows he can continue well beyond 40 days, perhaps even break records. Moreover, the artist frequently hears suspicions amongst his guards and onlookers that his performance is fraudulent, that the man has some private stash of food unknown to anyone but him. These accusations do nothing more than bruise the artist’s ego, making him feel under-appreciated and cheated.

And then all of a sudden, interest in his performances completely evaporate. Abandoned by his fans, the artist reluctantly takes up with a circus, where he is relegated to a cage placed directly before the animal menagerie. Here he deals with the shame of having onlookers pause momentarily at his cage, wonder at the emaciated figure, then move quickly on to see what they really came to see, the exotic animals. Hurt by this lack of interest, the hunger artist starves himself indefinitely, for so long that even the circus staff forget about him. One day, the overseer, wondering why this seemingly empty cage with nothing but straw should remain empty, accidentally stumbles upon the artist. This is their exchange:

“Are you still fasting?” asked the overseer, “when on earth do you mean to stop?” “Forgive me, everybody,” whispered the hunger artist; only the overseer, who had his ear to the bars, understood him. “Of course,” said the overseer, and tapped his forehead with a finger to let the attendants know what state the man was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist. “What a fellow you are,” said the overseer, “and why can’t you help it?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear, so that no syllable might be lost, “because I couldn’t find the food l liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.

There are two reactions this prompts. Pity and contempt. Pity that the man who once magnetized crowds is dying forgotten. And contempt that he stayed so firmly fixed to a dying craft. The story closes with the workers burying the hunger artist and replacing him with a panther. Unlike the artist in his later years, the panther keeps the audience entranced with its vivacious energy.

The hunger artist is a caricature of the passive artist who stubbornly refuses to adapt, as much as it is a commentary on the arbitrary and changing attitudes of the public. Trends move along a current. Art that follows the slogan, “l’art pour l’art,” are now segregated to sites like Deviantart, Tumblr, Reddit/r/art, or Instagram, where you can privately showcase your art. You can find fantastic work there, but it’ll mostly only be appreciated by small fan bases that can throw the artists coins via Patreon or Crowdfunding. With the sheer volume of content out there online, now, typically only those with wealth, connections, and marketing skills make can become careerists with their work being hosted in fashionable galleries. So what is art’s new role? Function.

Referring to his team that helped designed the original Apple Macintosh, Steve Jobs said “these are people that under different circumstances would be painters and poets but, because of the time that we live in, this new medium has appeared in which to express oneself to one’s fellow species. And that’s a medium of computing.” Quoting John Lennon and Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs perceived himself as and his team as the new revolutionary artist. And I think it’s almost undeniable that he did start a revolution that does alter the contours of artist. As a result of technological advancements in the past three decades, today, the most prominent role of artist exists either in tech (programming software or video games) or in design (fashion, graphic design, advertising, and designing ergonomic spaces and objects). This is where investment in creativity becomes lucrative for companies and shareholders. Creativity has transitioned in importance to the thinkers, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates, the Elon Musks. They’re the new panthers in the cage.

But this symbolic marginalization in Kafka’s story isn’t limited to just the arts. It can also be applied more broadly as metaphor to the increasing marginalization society is currently experiencing with labor being supplanted by the long term, cost-efficient transition into automation. It’s unanimous that disruption is occurring in almost every industry. And whatever industry it disturbs, it creates ripple waves that affect other industries. Take for example, self-driving vehicles. If this were to implemented nationwide as tech-pioneers intend, then what happens to government budgets and local law enforcement that depend on ticketing as a major source of revenue? Or taxi services? Or the 3.5 million truck drivers on the road today? As well as all of the truck stops that rely on truck drivers for business? Just as the art world is being divided in terms of the wheat and the chaff, essential and nonessential, I believe society is reaching a point where, unless you make yourself essential, you are fated like Kafka’s antihero, for self-inflicted suicide. Starvation.

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