The hunger artist’s refusal to do anything other than his art is a rejection of capitalist ideals: he refuses to have a job, to engage with money, or to consume. But, of course, this is not as simple as it sounds. Though he might have rejected the most immediate interactions with capitalism, and is literally barred within his cage from the rest of the world, the hunger artist is still very much under society’s constraints. Put more bluntly: the impresario has commodified the hunger artist’s art (that is, he has turned it into something with monetary value), and in doing so interferes with the hunger artist’s vision and greatness by protecting his investment and always limiting the show to forty days. However, without the manager to organize the spectacle (through finding a venue and promoting the show to the public), the hunger-artist would have no audience for his art—and, as the reader sees at the end, would simply waste away. In a very real sense, then, the artist and impresario depend on one another. And through their dependence, the story portrays the way that art and entertainment are always inextricably intertwined.
The first thing the reader learns in the story is that the “interest in hunger-artists has suffered a marked decline.” Fashions for entertainment are changing, and unfortunately this means the hunger artist is destined to be left behind. Further demonstrating that the hunger artist is isolated in how much he cares about his art, no one can even remember how the decline in hunger-artistry came about: “because by then the shift in taste referred to above had taken place; it was almost sudden; perhaps there were profounder reasons for it, but who cared to find them out.” The hunger artist’s literal value is generated by how much people are willing to pay to see him, but having witnesses to his fasts is also how his act acquires any meaning at all. Trends—and value—come and go: “one day the pampered hunger-artist saw himself abandoned by the pleasure-seeking public which now flocked to different displays.”
Though the hunger artist doesn’t care about money, his manager certainly does. Without his manager to organise the shows and their publicity, the hunger artist would have no audience at all. The only other major character in the story, the manager/impresario is a capitalist through and through. His prime concern is for money, and he only looks after the hunger artist insofar as he needs him to generate a profit. He is willing to go to any lengths to make money, deceiving both the public and the hunger artist. The impresario sets the terms on which the hunger artist can exist, and makes sure they are favorable to him, the impresario. He also limits the hunger artist’s fasts, not out of genuine concern, but because over time he has realized that forty days is the best fasting length to generate a profit. The manager, by making the hunger artist’s act about profit rather than meaning per se (he’s not bothered about the quality or message of the art), reduces the act to mere entertainment and encourages the whims of the audience. The hunger artist wants his art to be the subject of the audience’s interest, but the impresario makes sure that it is the audience’s interest in the spectacle of the hunger artist himself that is piqued and then satisfied.
But the manager is not, ultimately, presented as some all-powerful nefarious villain exploiting the hunger art. That is not to say that he isn’t exploiting the hunger artist. He certainly is. Rather, the story implies that the impresario is just one aspect of the broader capitalist forces that move the world. Further, the story shows how the hunger artist, despite his idealism, artistic vision, and force of will, is himself beholden to the main driving force of capitalism: supply and demand. When the hunger artist fires his manager and joins the circus, it’s in part because he still naively believes that his great art can find a great audience. But he’s also following the basic principles of capitalism himself, taking his act where it has the greatest chance of making money (a chance that is unfortunately all too slim). The hunger artist wants an external verification that can only be brought about by an audience willing to pay to see him—but they’ll only pay if he’s worth the money and entertains them. As the audiences dwindle, the hunger artist’s “value” drops, verification and meaning become impossible and, most tragically of all, the cage becomes more valuable than his life. So, though the hunger artist aspires to go beyond society and its material concerns, the success of his act is governed by those very things. His art has been overshadowed by the “spectacle” of the profit-making show (e.g. the gaudy display at the end of the forty-day fasts). In this way, the story shows the depressing dynamic through which the artist and their art are always doomed to be captured and exploited by capitalist forces, reduced and packaged into entertainment, and then discarded when they cease to make a profit. This outcome, the story suggests, will always be the story of art in the world, because it is the only way that art can ever reach a wide audience. It is the price that must be paid. When the hunger artist finally achieves his greatest ever fast, it is because he has been literally forgotten as some sideshow in a circus. It is art, but (and because) no one is watching.
Art, Entertainment, and Capitalism ThemeTracker
Art, Entertainment, and Capitalism Quotes in A Hunger Artist
Over the last few decades, the interest in hunger-artists has suffered a marked decline. While it may once have been profitable to put on great public spectacles under one’s own production, this is completely impossible today. Times really have changed.
He had never yet—that people had to concede—left his cage of his own free will. The maximum period of starvation had been set by the manager at forty days, he permitted no longer stints than that, not even in major cities, and for a very good reason. He had learned from experience that by gradually intensified publicity the interest of a city could be kept alive for forty days, but at that point the public failed, there was a perceptible drop in the level of interest.
So then on the fortieth day the door of the flower-garlanded cage was thrown open, an excited audience filled the amphitheatre, a brass band played, two doctors entered the cage to perform the necessary tests on the hunger artist, the results were relayed to the hall by means of a megaphone, and finally two young ladies, thrilled to have been chosen for the task, came to lead the hunger artist down a couple of steps to where a small table had been laid with a carefully assembled invalid meal.
Because by then the shift in taste referred to above had taken place; it was almost sudden; perhaps there were profounder reasons for it, but who cared to find them out; be it as it may, one day the pampered hunger artist saw himself abandoned by the pleasure-seeking public which now flocked to different displays.