One theme in A Hunger Artist and other Kafka works is the negative effect industrialization and capitalism has on art.
Right away we notice the difference between Kafka’s pessimism and the optimism of Victorian literature. Kafka describes the hunger artist as the passionate starving artist who ignores his destitution and the necessity of a regular job. In defense of art, I believe this short story is a depiction of the modern condition. The cage is the artist's cramped apartment is where his artistic inspiration springs, and he never looks at his cage’s clock, that ultimate indicator of economics which signals when it is time to go to work. In fact, he never looks at anything else, either; he has total control over his own starvation. He is the "artist of his own life".
We immediately learn that the hunger artist is no longer so independent. He requires an impresario to manage the show, and the impresario sets a time limit for the fasting periods. More importantly, the hunger artist loses much of his free will when the impresario shakes him: “The artist now submitted completely.” Instead of a serious artistic endeavor, the fasting is turned into an entertainment designed to appease the public.
But what exactly is the hunger artist’s art? The impresario has commodified his art, making it something saleable, and not art for art’s sake. Kafka rejects “scale” as a new economic force whereby capitalists can gain greater profits and encompass more art forms due to so-called economies of scale.
The hunger artist himself, at least, seems to consider his fasting a serious practice of self-denial rooted in masochism and suffering; he is even referred to as a “suffering martyr.” He is obsessed with the limits of suffering. The first word is “unendurable” and “endure” pop up at different times; the words reflect a state of painful continuation. The hunger artist wants a “performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting.” This infinitude of fasting is ironic in that we usually think of infinity as a superabundance of quantity, whereas fasting is an absence of quantity (since nothing is being eaten; however, the fasting is then measured in how long one has fasted for).
However, the hunger artist complicates our appreciation of his art when he admits that fasting is easy to do. If we take fasting to be a metaphor for suffering, he is saying that suffering is easy. The artist as a suffering figure is nothing new; most art, it could be argued, and especially Kafka’s writing, emerges from suffering. The hunger artist is merely revealing his suffering to the world. Let us ignore the fact that he is not converting his suffering to a medium we are accustomed to, such as music or painting. His medium is his cage and the public performance. But how meaningful is this art, or any art based on private suffering?
Kafka explores the hunger artist’s complicated relationship with his audience, and in this relationship we can better see how each side appreciates the art. No one believes the hunger artist when he claims that fasting is easy. They do not understand his art at a basic level. They cannot empathize with his suffering because they are cruel, and this incomprehension frustrates the hunger artist. They also trivialize his art. They believe he is somehow cheating, and they often do not pay him the attention he desperately craves. He enters a vicious cycle of suffering, since he suffers more when the audience does not understand his art of suffering. Metaphorically, he is the misunderstood artist, alienated from everyone even through his art.
However, this alienation and misunderstanding may be precisely why the hunger artist continues his art. He needs to feel superior to the audience; his suffering must be more intense, emotional, and intellectual than theirs. Therefore, he happily watches them gorge on food he has bought while he continues his fast. The artistry of the hunger artist, then, seems meaningful only to him. Only he can possibly understand his own craft, and despite his claims to the contrary, this is just how he wants it. Perhaps he recognizes that his art is fraudulent and cannot bear the thought that it will be understood and criticized. It is much safer to maintain the inaccessibility of his art; no one can judge it except for himself.
So what does the audience take from the exhibition? It is not intellectually interested in the private art of suffering so much as it is fascinated by the public spectacle of suffering, or the suffering of anyone else (for example, their delight when the female escort cries). The watchers think the hunger artist is a cheat, and they often shirk their duty; after glimpsing his suffering, they are happy to move past it.
Since only the hunger artist knows he is fasting, he is the only one who can understand his art; and he is never satisfied. Usually we think of insatiability as a condition of excess; the spendthrift, the satyr, and the glutton are all insatiable. The hunger artist's fasting is, as previously commented upon, excessive in its nothingness. He is never satisfied with his own empty stomach, just as he can never be satisfied, or full, from the reception of his art. The audience, on the other hand, never has “any cause to be dissatisfied” with the show.
The great irony is that the audience does not understand the art yet is pleased with it, while the artist understands his art but is not pleased. We may say that the hunger artist’s exhibition is artistically unfulfilling inside the bars of the cage, while it is entertainingly fulfilling outside of the cage. The key to this divide of fulfillment is that the hunger artist still privately suffers. He does not relate this suffering to the audience, and Kafka suggests this dispersal of pain is the motivation behind the art: “if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn't the public endure it?” Kafka is even-handed in his treatment of this drive; while sharing one's most private thoughts through art is a noble endeavor, there is also something selfish and hateful about it, as implied by the hunger artist's desire for the audience to “endure” his suffering.
Kafka draws a parallel between the hunger artist and alludes to another figure of suffering, Christ. This is not readily obvious when reading the story, and requires an understanding of its religious intertextuality beforehand. The hunger artist’s fasts are limited to forty days; Christ was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:1-2). Christ’s fast, which he most likely did to allude to the forty years of wandering for the Jews, has now become Lent. However, this parallel ends at the point where Christ is thought to have suffered for humanity; the hunger artist suffers because of humanity.
While there is no specific reference, the hunger artist may share one other salient characteristic with Christ (originally): he appears to be Jewish. At the very least, the hunger artist is marginalized and cast as the outsider in society as Jews usually are, and Kafka, a Jew, often draws this parallel in his writings (for example, in the short story Before the Law). Backing up this contention is that the watchers assigned to his cage are usually butchers. While their profession says something about the gluttony of the audience, Jewish kosher guidelines prohibit pork and dictate specific preparations for meat. Judging by their lax attendance to watching the hunger artist, it is safe to assume these are not kosher butchers.
The conflict between the hunger artist and the fickle public takes center stage here as he is forced to commercialize his art even more. “Forced” is an appropriate word, since the hunger artist loses whatever free will he has left. Imprisoned in his cage, all the hunger artist has going for him, it seems, is his artistic freedom. Charlie Chaplin exemplifies this in his film Modern Times when he realizes the absurdity of modern life and embraces the irrationality of his artistic freedom. Others previously impinged upon this freedom in subtler ways: the watchers thought the hunger artist was cheating, while the impresario limited his fasting to forty days. But he still had the pleasure of controlling his self-denial, of scripting his own suffering. Now, the impresario makes outright lies about the hunger artist right in front of him.
It is notable that the impresario uses photographs to “prove” the state of the hunger artist’s exhaustion. The audience believes more in the visual medium of photography than in what is in front of its eyes; the static, recorded spectacle is more important than the live one, and they are happy to buy the photographs as well, which are of course on sale. As a measure of the hunger artist’s reduced free will, he does not even read his circus contract. At the circus, the hunger artist is reduced to this level of diversion. He places himself in a strategic spot as a mere obstacle for zoo-goers, rather than as the main attraction. His proximity to the zoo also demonstrates the corruption of his talent and an ensuing debased equation with the animals.
Predictably, the hunger artist hates seeing and hearing the animals ravenously eat. Unlike before, when he enjoyed watching the butchers eat breakfast in front of him, the idea of others eating now depresses him. Previously, he controlled the consumption (the breakfast was at his expense) and could maintain his superiority of controlled fasting over the animalistic, weak-willed men. Now, the others are actually animals, and hearing them feed is only a reminder of his loss of free will.
To counter this loss of free will, the hunger artist persists in trumpeting the importance of his art. Though he previously conceded that fasting is an easy pursuit, the sentence “Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting!” seems in his aloof, alienated voice. Ironically, the greatest targets of the hunger artist’s frustration are not those who watch the animals, but those who stay to watch him only to defy the stampeding zoo-goers. Though he has reason to dislike them, since they are not really interested in him, his hatred seems like veiled self-loathing; he knows he has become a freak show, and he must project his depression outward.
Nevertheless, the hunger artist feels the world is “cheating him of his reward.” The art itself is not enough; he still needs acknowledgment of his brilliance, despite his condescending, loathsome attitude towards the public. This mixture of superiority and inferiority is the crux of his relationship with the audience, and perhaps signifies what his fasting truly is, an arrogant craving for sympathy and appreciation.
If we return to the metaphor of starvation as artistic suffering and creation, the hunger artist implies that the world is simply not designed for him, that it naturally produces suffering in him. If he were not so alienated, he admits, he would gladly eat. This statement undermines the free will of self-denial he previously coveted. Fasting is a mere reflexive action, not a conscious decision to suffer. Fasting is as much a non-art, then, as everyone else’s eating is. The hunger artist claims he wanted to be admired for his fasting, but his actions betray his real desire when he speaks “with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear.” Never opening his mouth for food, the hunger artist could also neither give nor receive any love inside his cage. His body could never be used as a conduit for love, but only as a channel for suffering.
The panther at the end, which replaces the artist, is the inversion of the hunger artist. It’s the sort of modern fascination with novelty and entertainment, and its rejection of the profound and artistic. Kafka ensures we recognize it as a symbol of appetite and vitality by drawing attention to the freedom lurking in its “jaws” and the “joy of life” streaming from its “throat”. The panther overcomes the imprisonment of its cage and still feels free. The hunger artist, on the other hand, though he thought himself free at times through his self-denial, was always a captive of his own suffering and starvation.
The panther is the next spectacle for the audience, a horrific new entertainment from which the public cannot tear its eyes—a violent symbol of that which causes, not absorbs, suffering. The modernists are fascinated by the shock-value of the panther. Yet the slowly starving artist was not shocking enough and not believed to be genuine. The last line suggests the panther truly has supplanted the hunger artist as a much more accepted commercial art form. There is some bitter irony in the last line. It would not be surprising if the modern audience deserts the panther at one point, just as it has done to the hunger artist.