“A Hunger Artist” examines the relationship between the artist, their art, and the society in which that art is received. Though the artist in this case—whose act is simply the ability to fast—has a pure vision of his “craft,” he can only display his art within the context of an audience that frequently misunderstands and mistrusts him. While art is often held up as being something that “holds a mirror to society”—forcing society to recognize truths about itself—Kafka’s story suggests that this is a flawed idea: the hunger artist and his audience, after all, continuously misunderstand each other. Ultimately, Kafka doesn’t suggest that there is no role or value for art in society, but instead that it does not function in as clear a way as either the artist or audience expect.
There is no doubting the hunger artist’s commitment to his art—he has abandoned everything else about his life to make fasting his one sole focus. By ignoring the things that are usually thought of as important in life (friends, family, being happy, etc.), he embodies the prevalent idea that sacrifice is essential to the creation of art that is meaningful and true. In fact, he takes this idea to its logical extreme by making his art about the sacrifice of the very thing that all life needs to go on living: nourishment. His art does not merely require sacrifice—it is sacrifice. His commitment to that sacrifice is total: “no hunger-artist would have eaten the least thing under any circumstances, not even under duress; the honor-code of his art forbade it.” Furthermore, he prides himself on never leaving his cage of his own free will—as the reader sees at the end, he is willing to go all the way to be truly great.
The audiences in the story don’t really understand why the hunger artist is so committed to starvation. It interests them to a degree, but there’s no indication that they think of it as great art, and their tastes are subject to change on a whim. They don’t understand his sacrifice, nor necessarily want to understand it. They see him more as an entertainment, although occasionally he disgusts them too (for instance, when the two women help him to his meal table at the end of his fast). Because of this misunderstanding between audience and artist, the members of the general public don’t trust that the artist is genuine—how could someone truly wish to go that long without eating? They think he must be sneaking food, and part of the entertainment becomes trying to catch him doing it (the men guarding him to ensure he keeps fasting even seem willing to let him sneak food). They’ve also got more going on in their lives than to be truly dedicated to verifying the authenticity of the hunger artist—they’d have stay with him the whole time in order to do so. The audience’s view of the hunger artist’s work as entertainment, then, stops them from even being able to perceive it as art.
Yet despite the purity of the hunger artist’s dedication to his art, he needs an audience. Though the story makes clear the profound way that an artist can never fully communicate with an audience and all the ways that an audience can further contribute to that misunderstanding, it also shows how the artist is completely dependent on the audience. The artist is in an impossible bind: through his art, he seeks to go beyond the confines of society, but he needs his art to be witnessed by that society in order for it to be meaningful in the world. As all these potential witnesses are imperfect, the artist can never truly communicate the full meaning of his work. This further isolates the hunger artist, pushing him to more and more extreme acts of starvation, ultimately culminating in his greatest (and most meaningless) work—his own death. The one time he is allowed to starve beyond forty days is not due to an audience wanting to see him achieve something great and true—it’s because they’ve moved on and are no longer watching or caring at all.
Within the context of the story, then, the prospect for art and the artist seems bleak. The hunger artist is never able to communicate to his audience. His art is never understood, and it’s never even seen as being art. And yet, there is an audience that does understand the hunger artist more fully than the people in the crowd ever do, and that can recognize the art in his starvation—the readers of the story. The story, then, suggests that art can never truly communicate what it was originally meant to, even as its very nature seeks communication with an audience. In that paradox, the story obliquely asserts that even if the outcome is never what is intended, and never understood, the effort at communication, and the devotion and sacrifice necessary to that effort, have meaning that must be recognized.
The Artist and Society ThemeTracker
The Artist and Society 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.
…scorning the use of a chair he sat on the scattered straw, pale, in a black vest, with startlingly protruding ribs, now nodding politely, answering questions with a strained smile, or poking his arm through the bars so that its thinness might be felt, but repeatedly collapsing into himself, not caring about anything or anyone.
He much preferred those invigilators who sat right in front of his bars, who were not content with the dim night-light in the hall, but aimed at him the beams of electric torches that the manager had left at their disposal…What made him happiest of all was when the morning came and a lavish breakfast was brought up to them at his expense, on which they flung themselves with the healthy appetite of men who had spent an entire night without rest.
No one was capable of spending every day and every night with the hunger-artist as an invigilator without a break, and therefore no one could know from the direct evidence of his own senses whether the hunger artist had starved himself without a break, without a lapse; only the hunger-artist himself was in a position to know that, only he therefore could be the spectator completely satisfied by his own hunger.
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.
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.
…the hunger artist gave perfectly credible assurances that he was just as good at starving as he had ever been…he was only now finally ready to throw the world into justifiable astonishment—a claim that, in view of the temper of the times, which the hunger artist was apt in his enthusiasm to forget, raised a smile with the experts.
...the hunger artist starved himself as he had once dreamed of doing, and he succeeded quite effortlessly as he had once predicted, but no one counted the days, no one knew how great his achievement was, not even the hunger artist himself, and his heart grew heavy. And if once in a while a passer-by stopped, and mocked the old calendar and said it was a swindle, that was the most insulting lie that indifference and native malice could have come up with.
“I always wanted you to admire my starving,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer placatingly. “But you’re not to admire it,” said the hunger artist. “All right, then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “why should we not admire it?”