Analysis of “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka
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Reflections on Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”
“A Hunger Artist” is a deceptive story. It’s deceptive because it seems to resist a clear and sure interpretation, but in the end Franz Kafka’s short story may be “about” exactly what it seems to be about, which is to say this is a story about how artists relate to society.
There are a few layers to this reading, so let’s start at the top.
1) Underappreciation: The story introduces us to an artist who comments on how the world around him has changed. While it has always been skeptical of the art form he practices, the world now seems to have turned away from him entirely. He still seeks attention and accolades, but finds that he can no longer draw enough of a crowd to put on a solo show. Society has marginalized him, in a way, with its growing disinterest in professional fasting.
2) Art as Authentic Inauthenticity: Taking a step deeper into the story, we might wonder what it means that the hunger artist confesses to never finding a food that he likes. His entire “art” is called into question by this confession, but at the same time we cannot ignore the fact that the hunger artist is driven to pursue his art at all costs, pushing himself to perfect his craft. This means that his art is partly a deception, rooted in a specific inauthenticity, yet it remains a “true” mode of expression. It is still an art. So here we see that the artist’s craft is always a performance, something fabricated, yet true – a “true fiction,” so to speak.
By implication, we might ask if Kafka is inviting us to see all art in this light and reflect on the relationship between art and authenticity. Perhaps all art is a performance, a “show” founded on some distance from the real.
3) The Artist as Outsider: A further step into the layers of the story brings us to the recognition that the artist is driven to his art by a fundamental inability to be like other people. Try as he might, he simply cannot find satisfaction in food like other people. His difference thus becomes his performance and his truth.
His only relationship to the society around him – the only way for him to maintain his connection to other people – is to put his difference on display and invite people to see him in all his alienation. He hopes they will admire him, but they do not understand him (and never will) because he is not like them. This is the explanation of his art and we can see it as both a burden and a badge of honor for the artist who took his difference and refined it to near perfection.
When the hunger artist is replaced in the cage by a young panther, the crowd appreciates the beast. They gravitate toward the essential authenticity and artlessness of the creature. As a “dig” at his contemporaries, we might say Kafka is suggesting that people think on the level of beasts, unable to appreciate true art. They only respond to “animal authenticity” and cannot see value in the artist’s well-crafted artifice. They relate to a just for being a panther, not to the artist being something other than an average human being.
This contrast offers us one more hint at the story’s underlying themes: art is performance, sometimes the performance of an essential difference, and the performance ironically articulates the distance between the artist and society.
4) Ironies of the Artist: The artist clearly occupies an ironic position – seeking celebrity and fame, Kafka doesn’t even give him a name. In the midst of his greatest achievement, he is forgotten. He is caught, it seems, in a very particular obscurity. Unable to win over the crowd, he is also unable to become one of them. While his art has the potential to communicate this precise idea, the world around him has no time for professional fasting anymore. More than that, they don’t believe he is actually fasting.
The hunger artist’s basic lie, in the story, is also the thing that contains his truth (i.e., he is not like other people). This complexity is not easy to communicate to an audience looking for simple entertainment. It’s something that requires a deeper investigation from them, a sifting through of details, an appreciation of subtly and sustained effort – something they don’t have. And maybe the reason they don’t have it is rooted in the same difference the artist wants to communicate (i.e., they aren’t artists).
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