Provide your understanding of the central theme in "A Hunger Artist." Consider the relationship between the artist and his audience.

One could argue that the central theme in "A Hunger Artist" is the relationship between the artist and his audience. In considering this relationship in relation to the hunger artist, it's necessary to understand it as fundamentally paradoxical. On the one hand, he needs an audience if his work is to be appreciated. On the other hand, most of his audience doesn't seem to appreciate his work, seeing him as, at best, a circus act, at worst, a cheat.

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The hunger artist is an individual, a very unique individual at that. Even among the artistic community, he stands out from the crowd. Virtually no one else is doing what he does, fasting in a cage in front of an audience. It's clear that the hunger artist has a high regard for what he's doing; this is not some kind of gimmick, this is real art:

Apart from the changing groups of spectators there were also constant observers chosen by the public—strangely enough they were usually butchers—who, always three at a time, were given the task of observing the hunger artist day and night, so that he didn’t get something to eat in some secret manner. It was, however, merely a formality, introduced to reassure the masses, for those who understood knew well enough that during the period of fasting the hunger artist would never, under any circumstances, have eaten the slightest thing, not even if compelled by force. The honour of his art forbade it.

So we are left in no doubt that, for the artist in the cage, public fasting is a true art form. He takes it very seriously indeed, even if relatively few members of his audience do.

In the above excerpt, we can see the tension that exists between the artist and his audience. The "honor of his art" forbids him to break his fast. But in order to cater for the masses, it's necessary to have constant observers on hand to make sure that the artist doesn't cheat by eating.

The hunger artist may think he's providing art to the masses, but that's certainly not how they see it. They look at him as nothing more than a circus act, a moderately amusing sideshow. We've already seen how suspicious they are of him, how they expect him to cheat at the drop of a hat. As well as showing a lack of trust, such behavior shows a marked lack of respect for the art of public fasting:

Sometimes there were nightly groups of watchers who carried out their vigil very laxly, deliberately sitting together in a distant corner and putting all their attention into playing cards there, clearly intending to allow the hunger artist a small refreshment, which, according to their way of thinking, he could get from some secret supplies.

And yet, the hunger artist, like all artists, ultimately needs an audience of some kind. He simply cannot do without them, however ignorant, insensitive, and philistine they are.

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