Apr 9, 2020 in Literature

Hunger Isolation in Franz Kafka’s "A Hunger Artist"

Franz Kafka in his works tried to prove that an individual is always alone in his desire to live in the society autonomously, and it inevitably leads to the conflict between personal views and social demands and laws. As a result, individuals are forced to be guided by mass opinion and lifestyle, constantly sacrificing their unique world. For Kafka, the current existential situation is an attempt to understand his place in the world as a creator, who has suffered from a permanent lack of understanding on behalf of other people, especially his family and friends (except Max Brod).

In this sense, the story A Hunger Artist carefully reflects the conflict between the protagonist and the curious spectators, who perceive his unusual hobby as entertainment, and then forget about it. The writer managed to combine a fantastic plot with serious philosophical questions, exploring the nature of the relationship between an artist and the society. The current essay suggests that the hunger artist is a symbol of creative resistance against the ordinary world that finally leads to personal isolation and defeat since the audience can never understand an artist, leaving him/her alone with the art.

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The hunger art is the unusual and provocative practice since it contradicts with social and moral standards, and, therefore opposes the common stereotypes. The audience wants “to see him at least once a day”, but then people do not want to look at him anymore. It becomes obvious even in the first paragraph that the audience has an interest in the hunger artist because of his unusual style and creativity. However, they lose their interest because the art becomes boring and it does not fit into their stereotypes. Kafka also offers deeper symbolic overtones, proving that any art is entertainment for the spectators, and, in the current text, the artist is the victim of the widespread expectations. Nevertheless, he has completely devoted himself to this art, and does not want to accept food and water because “the honor of his profession forbade it”. Therefore, the public does not understand why he does it because a healthy person would never do such a thing for the sake of art. Therefore, the hunger artist is not like anyone else: he is the bearer of higher values than most of the people, and thus he wants to change the world, even at the cost of his own life. 

The problem of the hunger artist is that he wants all people to accept his art, and thus he practices radical physical methods, namely in the process of fasting. In fact, he is wrong in his creativity since he wants to please everyone and be always interesting. However, the audience is more interested in a young panther than in a skinny and exhausted artist with his unstoppable desire to deliver extraordinary ideas. In other words, people want to experience short performances, getting short-term pleasure without thinking and reflecting on difficult topics. In contrast, the hunger artist sacrifices himself to the audience, and he is ready “to exchange jokes with them, to tell them stories out of his nomadic life” and to do “anything at all to keep them awake”. In contrast, the spectators are not ready to accept his art since they identify it as a potential danger to their comfortable life. Furthermore, Kafka proves that there is always a barrier between an artist and his/her audience. The biggest paradox is that no artist can exist without the spectator. In this case, the hunger artist has experienced his unusual art in the cage for forty days and this has a symbolic meaning in the story.

The cage represents the artist’s physical limitations and conscious isolation from the society that does not understand his ideas, but still enjoys his performance. Due to his imprisonment in the cage, the hunger artist draws a line between his art and the audience, creating certain conditions for interpretation. In this regard, there is a clock in the cage that means the protagonist’s biological clock and his physical abilities. The clock helps him to deal with life in his aesthetical way to eternity, which contradicts with the spectator’s worldview. Moreover, it means that everyone depends on time and, therefore, on the earthly physical needs, including food. The physical division between the hunger/body and the anonymous viewer/mind is his conscious division between a free individual’s ego and the outside world. In other words, the artist believes that he becomes free due to fasting, revealing his need for different other kinds of food, namely public recognition and understanding. At the same time, he is restricted in his choice since nobody can appreciate his concept. Therefore, this gap in thinking leads to a critical gap in philosophical paradigms because the artist wants to suffer for the sake of his artistic perfection and, in contrast, the spectator wants to enjoy life. It is similar to the existential idea of Jean-Paul Sartre when everyone is destined to his/her choice. Kafka also stresses that an artist is always a hostage of his/her work, and, therefore, cannot see him/herself objectively along with the viewer. It is not an accident that the writer used the third-person narrator retrospectively, showing the overall picture of events.

Another important symbolic moment that captures the artist’s isolation from the audience is a 40-day performance. According to the story, the performance has lasted for forty days: “The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at forty days, and beyond that term he was not allowed to go”. This period is a metaphor of that time when a soul flies away from a dead body before it will go to heaven or hell. In this context, the more the hunger artist practices his art as he does it in the circus, the more he moves away from the audience in his work. Kafka shows that the intention to be a perfect artist means being invisible in the spiritual world, where wealth and values do not matter. The writer also states that forty days is enough both to loose interest in the artist’s work and to challenge his physical capacities: “So on the fortieth day the flower-bedecked cage was opened, enthusiastic spectators filled the hall, a military band played, two doctors entered the cage to measure the results of the fast”. During this period of time, he expands his capabilities to the point where he finds himself on the line between life and death. In other words, he always experiences a condition between two worlds while the soul seeks the path to liberation after death.

Thus, the artist’s physical exhaustion is a way to release himself as a spiritual being, free from any physical or social conditions. For the artist, the cage symbolizes his personal body, which does not allow him to overcome its limitations, and thus his hunger is a transgressive act of revealing the spiritual needs, namely recognition and perfection. The protagonist says in the end: “I always wanted you to admire my fasting”. In this regard, the artist’s fasting is both a natural and divine act, and according to this idea, the protagonist is similar to a saint in his creativity. Perhaps, the hunger artist finally finds happiness in this way of life, recalling the idea of free death from many religions as the only way out of suffering. However, Kafka was not focused on any religion or culture, because it was more important to understand an artist in general without making any definite conclusions, which became known only after his death. Nevertheless, the artist’s actions are not natural because his physical suffering is one more means of entertainment for the people. Hence, the writer does not believe in a chance being understood by the audience, so the artist will be free only after his death, eventually becoming immortal. Therefore, the conflict between the eternal/spiritual and the temporal/material is realized at the level of confrontation between the artist’s creativity and the collective consumerism. 

According to this idea, Kafka indicates that art is always more or less confusing to people, and the hunger artist’s mission is to complete his performance disregarding the circumstances. However, in this case, each artist must be conscious that the chosen way will lead to isolation and loneliness, as he/she will become a marginalized person compared to other people. The paradox is that the hunger artist cannot accept the popular lifestyle, namely eat something or drink water, because he will stop to be an artist at all, transforming into an ordinary man. It is no accident that the panther at the end of the story means vitality, power, and physical endurance, in contrast to the hunger artist. The indomitable energy of the panther has changed the artist’s passivity. Kafka argues that the panther feels more comfortable than the artist in the cage because the animal is guided by natural instincts and, therefore, eats for nothing: “The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought to him without hesitation by the attendants”. In contrast, the protagonist uses starvation as a means of reaching an understanding with the spectator. As a result, he loses in this fight, because the audience switches their attention to the animal, leaving the artist alone. Nevertheless, Kafka shows that it is impossible to leave his way for the protagonist, and he does not have other alternatives because “I have to fast, I can’t help it”. This uncompromising position is similar to the aesthetics of modernism that was also unclear to many readers. It is not surprising that Kafka wanted to destroy his texts because he thought that the viewer did not understand the hidden meanings.

In conclusion, Kafka’s A Hunger Artist story is an example of the conflict between the artist and the world in which the latter wins. The artist’s hunger is a method for searching the truth for the sake of art and his asceticism by which he becomes incomprehensible for the people.

Being in the cage, the artist measures the capabilities of his body, breaking its boundary to the spiritual sphere of life. However, he also isolates himself from the audience, provoking and continuing the endless conflict. Kafka argues that the true artist must be committed to his/her path, and, therefore, must sacrifice such earthly things as health, wealth, and comfort for the sake of truth. Despite this fact, no artist can be the real one without public, but at the same time, a desire to be clear for everyone is also the wrong way. In the story, the protagonist needs the audience in order to understand whether he is right or not, and thus the artist constantly expects a response from the spectator. On the other hand, Kafka has a negative attitude to the audience, because he believes that they are guided only by unconscious mass instincts, being ignorant about the eternal values. For these people, the hunger art is only a form of entertainment even in the hunger times in Europe, so they do not have an opportunity to understand what the artist’s message means. Hence, any artist stays in a constant struggle between his/her own principles and public recognition.

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