A Hunger for Approval
“The Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka describes the life of a man who is a hunger artist, which means he doesn’t eat in order to perform to all the people that come and watch him fast. They can watch him fast for days and days and days as a form of entertainment and the hunger artist is the performer of the show. The story gives the readers a sense of how long the main protagonist can devote himself to his own form of art – fasting and of how the world reacts to him. The questions of who we are to decide what a person is capable of doing, who we are to determine whether one’s artwork is acceptable or not and who we are to create all these categories have been raised repeatedly over the course of the story. There seems to be this refusal to view someone whose art does not fit in certain category as fully flushed out human with their own passions, desires and lives. But is a society that dehumanizes their own people just because they are different is a society that we want to live in?
The world of “The Hunger Artist” is presented by a limited narrator who tells the story from the view of the protagonist revealing his thoughts and relating everything that happens in the story to his own perspective. Kafka’s intension is to show the readers the feelings inside the hunger artists, of what it is like to be kept in a cage, to be taken advantage of from society and then eventually to have sacrificed his entire life for the work of art. Kafka has put everything on the line where we as readers cannot really tell if the hunger artist is doing this for the art that he has been pursuing or he is just merely obsessed with fasting as a rebellion to the world.
The hunger artist’s art consists of starving himself day after day in front of an audience because at one time “everybody want[s] to see him at least once a day” (Kafka 327). First, it would be misleading that the hunger artist might do this just for the money and for the fame due to the fact that people seem to be interested in the performance at the time; however, we find out later on that it is not the case. The hunger artist is a round and static character because from the beginning until the very end, he has never changed his view on the art that he has been creating; and even though he seems to have a lot of thoughts on his artwork, it is mainly for how many more days he can fast: “He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time; why stop now, when he was in his best fating form, or rather, not yet quite in his best fasting form?” (Kafka 329).
He is an artist, at least in his own eyes, and fasting is his form of art that he wants to show to the world around him. Nevertheless, by starving himself, he is destroying his body and his ability to create more artwork out of his body; thus, it is gradually taking him away from the chance of seeing his own product. Kafka seems to indicate that the hunger artist knows that death is waiting for him at the end if he continues to starve himself “Are you still fasting?”, but once again, he answers with no hesitation “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it” (334). The hunger artist fasts because there is no food he likes and he is doing this because he is dissatisfied with the world and is not happy with the food that he can eat. Therefore, his reaction is to act this way and he cannot choose to act any other way because this is who he is as a person. Many artists create art out of the deep desire that they have to create it and they are consistently productive over long period of their life. It can be seen that the hunger artist is one of those artists, somebody who is very much concerned, perhaps consumed by the production of his own art.
The society in “The Hunger Artist” has put the hunger artist in a cage, indicating that there are certain characters and role that he is expected to play so that he can pursue the desire to produce art. However, it seems like not only he has troubles finding roles that he can “play”, he meets obstacles when he tries to create them for himself. Kafka has set a set of minor characters – “permanent watchers” (328) in shaping readers’ interpretations and attitudes toward the hunger artist, especially to contrast between the doubts from the society and the artist’s honesty. The task of these watchers is “to watch the hunger artist day and night, there of them at a time, in case he should have some secret recourse to nourishment” (Kafka 328) and the hunger artist enjoys having these watchers around because he can show them “the honor of his profession” (Kafka 328) and that he is dedicated to his artwork more than anyone out there. However, there are still some watchers tend to be “very lax” with the idea that they can “give the hunger artist the chance of a little refreshment” (Kafka 328). Nothing seems to make the hunger artist more annoyed than these watchers because they pity him and his work of art and they think that they are doing him a favor by letting him have something to eat every once in a while.
It is certainly difficult for the hunger artist to live in a world where there is no one that can understand his needs to produce art because they have this mind set of cheatings – “the world was cheating him of his reward” (Kafka 334). It is the practice of assuming someone to be something that they are not, without questioning any other possibility. It takes away the foundation of an artist like his feeling, his belief, and his desire and treats those like a costume of money and fame. A step beyond that is being abandoned by his audience who goes “streaming past him to other more favored attractions (Kafka 331) and not being accepted by the larger society because “there was not comfort for those living in the present” (Kafka 331) to watch the hunger artist; therefore, it dehumanizes the hunger artist and it feeds this idea that the artist is an outsider, no more than an outdated form of entertainment.
So, at some point, when there is deliberate lack of inclusion becomes exclusion. In “A Hunger Artist,” the hunger artist’s troubled relationship with his spectators suggests that the artist exists apart from society and must therefore be misunderstood. The belief exists in the society seems to be that the hunger artist just does not belong or that he only belongs in a very small role. But if that is all society was being shown, this belief can cross over to everyone’s daily life by their subconscious biases and perceptions since “for the elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion” (Kafka 327). Nobody ever takes the hunger artist and his artwork seriously. When it is rare to see someone like the hunger artist, it suggests that the hunger artist is not important and it creates the bias that the hunger artist is not worthy to be in any community.
The whole story by Kafka is presented through the lenses of the hunger artist, someone who is constantly looking out to the real world while being kept in a cage. This particular setting makes the readers wonder whether it is worth it to lock one’s self for the sake of performing art and how terrible it is for the hunger artist to be nothing but a specie for other people to look at. The suffering of a desperate soul is what he can symbolize the best. He is both the artist and the masterpiece and he devotes himself to what seems to him the heart of his existence, fasting in a cage in front of an apathetic society. Once again, Kafka shows that the artwork of the hunger artist is nothing more than an animal in a circus and he is nothing but a form of entertainment as shown by “when the public came thronging out in the intervals to see the animals, they could hardly avoid passing the hunger artist’s cage and stopping there for a moment” (332). The fact that even though the audience finds other things more interesting to them than the starvation of a person, the hunger artist does not simply adapt and change; thus, this raises a question of whether the artist is doing all of this for the acceptance of the society or he is just living his life of creating his own art. With that being stated, Kafka wants us to understand that the hunger artist only wants approval from the art work that he is creating and that he is “too fanatically devoted to fasting” (332). He is indeed a master in the art of fasting. All he is longing his whole life for is some recognition, a fickle attention or just one brief glance of a stranger passing by him. A sign acknowledging his existence and his work of art; nevertheless, nobody seems to be curious enough in wanting to know more about his art and it eventually breaks the hunger artist “and that was the reason why the hunger artist, who had of course been looking forward to these visiting hours as the main achievement of his life, began instead to shrink from them” (Kafka 332).
So, if the hunger artist is a symbolic representation of the art, the reality of being an artist and the desire to perform this form of art to an audience, then it seems like he does not only want approval from the audience but also from himself. Over the course of the story, readers are shown repeatedly by the author that the hunger artist is never satisfied with his art work. Kafka indicates that “it was not perhaps mere fasting that had brought him to such skeleton thinness” but “it was dissatisfaction with himself that had worn him down” (329). The hunger artist has always been asking himself of all “the fame he would get for fasting longer” and for being “the record hunger artist of all time” (Kafka 329). It becomes an obsession that he must fast more and more to pass what he has already accomplished and to “[beat] his own record by a performance beyond human imagination” (Kafka 330). In the hunger artist’s case, being an artist means cutting oneself off from the world, a conclusion reflected in the hunger artist’s conscious choice to sequester himself in a cage. The cage where the hunger artist spends most of his life is not really what separates him from the world but it is his continuous desire to prove himself, and the hope to be accepted by the society that keeps him from reality. This physical separation of hunger artist and spectator mirrors the spiritual separation of the individual artistic ego and public will. The further the hunger artist goes in pursuit of perfection, as he does in the circus, the further away he moves from the understanding of the people for whom he performs.
It is the battle outside and inside of the hunger artist to fight against an ignorant world that is “cheating him of his reward” (Kafka 334) and how to effectively create change, which sadly the hunger artist fails miserably. This gap in mindset leads to a critical gap in understanding. Set apart from others, only the hunger artist realizes the importance of his ambitions and accomplishments, and only he knows that he is not cheating, but there is no approval of that. A large part that creates this tragedy for the hunger artist is that people do not understand the importance of his art work and that he is so concerned with himself that he cannot enjoy his own masterpiece. After all, it is a matter of if we are able to put the artists and their work to cherish without twisting or changing anything about them. And if every artist is given a cage where he can be in, “not even to miss his freedom” (Kafka 334), will they be able to overcome their own obsession of wanting recognition and approval from society?
Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist”. The Norton Introduction to Literature Portable Eleventh Edition, edited by Kelly Mays, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 327-334.