Sunday, February 8, 2009

Franz Kafka: A Hunger Artist

I have read Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" a number of times and have had difficulties in the past trying to make sense of it. However, just as I was falling asleep shortly after reading it, this idea slowly emerged. Try it on and let me know what you think.

The story is about a man who makes his living by fasting for 40 days at a time. He is on display in a cage surrounded by an audience who come to watch him. The impresario attempts to have people in the area observe him 24 hours a day and who will swear he hasn't had anything to eat. The story depicts his eventual decline as an attraction that can draw an audience.

Several critics have suggested the story is about art, whether it be literature or painting or sculpture or music. Building on that concept, I should point out that the title is, after all, "A Hunger Artist." The initial article "A" suggests that this person is not unique, but one of several, if not many.

One of the characteristics of art that I hold to is that art to be art must communicate with others. If there is no audience, there is no art. It may be a painting or a musical composition, a poem or a work of fiction, but it isn't art, not without an audience. Note that at the beginning of the story, our artist has an audience--people who come to see him, study him, and even question him. He has an audience who are interested in him.

One point that is important but gets buried is that there are limits--40 days for the performance. If it goes over 40 days, he loses his audience. Similarly, if a poet or painter or composer goes beyond certain limits then that artist loses the audience--consider the case of modern painting, poetry, literature, and music. They have lost their audience and now, for the most part, appeal mostly to specialists and experts.
It also happens that artists who realize that they are losing their audience sometimes go to extremes to the extent that they eventually lose or chase away whatever audience is left. At one point, our hunger artist goes beyond the 40 day limit and becomes so weak he cannot even sit and be seen anymore. All forget him, and he is lost.

Another point is that of fashion. Trends in the arts appear and go out of fashion. The same happened to the hunger artist. His day was over, and he was relegated to a circus, just one among many other attractions. He no longer is a headliner, able to draw an audience on his own. I am reminded of a museum where various artistic attractions are gathered so that an audience can come and browse among the many formerly powerful and influential trends, but now are just one among equals.

Something similar happens in the field of classical music. Artistic directors for orchestras are aware that if they scheduled a program of all modern music, Schoenberg or Cage, for example, they would see a much reduced audience. So, they sandwich a piece by Cage or Schoenberg in between two more traditional pieces which will bring in an audience. I heard a interview with one director who said that he always placed the modern work either first or second, because if he placed it last, after the break, he would lose a large portion of the audience. In the circus, our hunger artist is now placed in such a way that people had to pass by him to get to the wild animal cages.

The panther is the new fashion, and it is interesting to note that it is the opposite of the hunger artist. It is active and alive, and we read that the audience enjoys watching it eat. The panther is the opposite of the hunger artist; frequently, when one trend or fashion dies out, it is replaced by its opposite.

A Hunger Artist: Historical Context

One brief note--apparently Kafka did not create the hunger artist. There supposedly were such exhibitions in Europe during the early 20th century.
Breon Mitchell, in "Kafka and the Hunger Artists," tells of "a world famous hunger artist whose coverage in local newspapers may have inspired Kafka's story. Mitchell point out that 'almost every detail' of Kafka's story corresponds to 'the actual profession of fasting for pay." This is an excerpt from the article at

Unfortunately it costs $8.00 to see the complete article.


  1. Hope this helps ;)

  2. G Cullen,

    Thanks for the link. Some very useful material at that site.

  3. Once, after reading this story, I tried fasting just to see how it'd go.
    Gave up within 24 hours.

  4. Di,

    Chuckle. . .

    Sounds about right.

  5. Hahaha.
    How's it going, by the way? Haven't heard from you for a while.

  6. Di,

    I've been out of town for several weeks. I went to visit my brother and his wife who live in the Chicago area. Just got back on Friday.

  7. Di,

    Enjoyable. Went to two concerts, a classic car museum and a variety of restaurants: German, Spanish tapas, Lithuanian, Italian, and of course a sandwich place.

  8. Nice.
    Oh tapas. I love tapas. Had it for the 1st time in my life when I was in Barcelona in summer, and it was heavenly.
    Have you been to Barcelona?

  9. Di,

    No, I've never been to Europe. I've only been to Mexico and Canada.

  10. Oh, okay.
    But well, I haven't been to the US. Haha.