Monday, March 1, 2010

Essence of the Artist

Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" is a critique on both humanity and upon the artist, be it paintings, music, dance, or any other form of art. "A Hunger Artist" focuses specifically on a hunger artist, but the artist is a metaphor for humanity. To explore the metaphor, we must first take a look into the hunger artist.

A hunger artist is a person that deliberately starves themself as a form of art. The artist usually places themself into a cage and simply sit by while people watch and pass by. The image of such an artist in "A Hunger Artist" is that of a limp man within a cage, slumped down in the hay, rather than in a chair. The artist's ribs stick out prominently and he sticks his arm out through the bars to allow people to see how skinny he is. The hunger artist might answer some questions and nod at those watching or who passed by, but much of the time of a hunger artist is spent sitting and thinking inwardly with half shut eyes and maybe taking a sip from a small glass every so often.

To enforce the validity of the hunger artist's task, a watcher would be stationed outside of the cage to watch and make sure that the artist did not eat. Kafka describes two groups of these watchers: those who watched and those who would sit distracted, maybe even play a game of poker with a friend, as if to allow the artist to sneak a snack. The artist usually hated the second kind because they made their task seem all the more impossible, as if there was no faith that they could actually do such a feat on their own.

Alas, all of this starving eventually would come to an end around forty days because any more would be pushing the attention span of the people too far. They would no longer be interested and would leave the hunger artist alone to his own devices. If the artist should allow them to finish the count at forty days, he would be greeted by a multitude of people ready to see a show, and, with the help of two women, would be helped over to a table to eat his first meal since he began his fast.

The hunger artist was never satisfied with this end; making it forty days, he believed he could go much longer. Eventually he would return to his fast and upon exceeding the forty days, he would find himself alone. Wishing to be seen, to be validated and accepted, the artist would find his way into the circus where he would be given a place to continue his fast as long as he should desire. At first the artist will be viewed and reminisced. People would remember how when they were young, they too saw an artist as such, and for a time the artist would be content. This would not last. Eventually many of the other attractions, including the main attraction, would pull people away and the days of fasting would be lost, no record maintained. The artist would continue to starve until finally on his dying breath, the hunger artist would collapse.

The hunger artist is a depiction of all other artists. Artists, as well as humanity, is focused on doing well, and doing better. When an artist creates something, they are usually unhappy with it, they believe that they can do better and that people simply do not understand. When people stop to look at the artists' creations, they simply feel that they are alone and work even harder to gain the attention, but often times, once they have left the spotlight, they have been passed up and are old news.

When the hunger artist dies in "A Hunger Artist", he is replaced by a panther. The panther is something new and exciting, but also the opposite of what the hunger aritst was about. The panther is full of life and pounces around his cage eating raw meat and he does not seem to miss his freedom as the hunger artist may have seemed in his miserable state. It is said that the people, while "crowded around the cage, ... did not want ever to move away," but I wonder if this is simply another phase just like the hunger artist. Is "A Hunger Artist" simply a commentary on the desire in humanity for more and new entertainment? Or does the story focus even more on showing the passing desire to see a loss of humanity, and self inflicted pain, and the lasting desire to see something alive and full of freedom and life?

I feel that "A Hunger Artist" manages to do both. Within the context of the story, there is nothing to suggest that this panther, full of freedom and life, will ever be replaced; and yet through the image of the hunger artist in his fallen fame, it is possible that such a thing could occur. Is Humanity doomed to forever desire?