A Hunger Artist

by Franz Kafka

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Discussion Topic

The artist-audience relationship in "A Hunger Artist."


In "A Hunger Artist," the relationship between the artist and the audience is characterized by misunderstanding and detachment. The audience views the artist's fasting as a spectacle, failing to grasp the deeper significance and spiritual dedication behind his art. This disconnect highlights the artist's isolation and the public's superficial engagement with his performance.

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In "A Hunger Artist," what is the relationship between the artist and his audience?

You have asked an excellent question about this fascinating story. One central theme that can be clearly identified is the relationship between the artist and their audience - note the title of the story and the way that the central protagonist calls himself an "artist." Kafka seems to be using the hunger artist to raise serious questions about the relationship between the artist and their audience.

It is important to note that the hunger artist dedicates himself totally to his career. He craves the attention and wonder that his art gains and is delighted when the whole town is interested in his art:

He was quite happy at the prospect of spending a sleepless night with such watchers; he was ready to exchange jokes with them, to tell them stories out of his nomadic life, anything at all to keep them awake and demonstrate to them again that he had no eatables in his cage and that he was fasting as not one of them could fast.

Yet, although the interest, appreciation and curiosity of the crowd brings him joy, he remains deeply unsatisfied with his performance. He feels limited by the 40 day fasting limit imposed on him and also feels that the audience really do not appreciate his art in the way it should be:

Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after forty days of it? He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time; why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form, or rather, not yet quite in his best fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer...?

We can imagine that his struggles with his relationship with the audience is typical of many artists, who want their art to be appreciated for what they feel it is, rather than the packaged-for-presentation nature of art that is savoured by the public. Eventually, his art goes out of vogue and he is consigned to a circus and, ironically, given free reign to practice his art for as long as he wants, but to a disinterested audience.

"The Hunger Artist" therefore raises serious questions about the relationship between artists and their audience, and the struggle between the purity of art and the way that art is often misinterpreted or misrepresented to an uncaring and fickle audience.

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In "A Hunger Artist," how does Kafka depict the artist-audience relationship transformation?

Kafka's work details a very peculiar and paradoxical relationship between the artist and the audience.  On one hand, the artist believes in the intrinsic value of what he does.  His fasts, the meticulous attention paid to them, and to make sure that there is rigor involved becomes critically important to him.  The artist disparages his audience for not adhering to this level of attention and scrutiny in his work.  This lack of appreciation might create a barrier between the artist and the audience.  Yet, the paradox is that the artist needs his audience and is willing to do anything for them to hold their interest.  When he is taken into the circus, he believes he can hold out and fast for longer than 40 days.  The artist is depicted as one who asserts their own identity outside of the audience, but is also one linked to them for it is through their validation that there is total satisfaction.  The artist understands the fickle nature of the public, but can do little about it.  In this light, Kafka's artist reveals how difficult it is to be an artist equally committed to one's own creation and the public appreciation of it.  At some point, unlike Kafka's artist, there has to be an understanding of where one needs to place primacy because one cannot have both ends.

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In "A Hunger Artist," how does Kafka depict the artist-audience relationship transformation?

Many consider this excellent short story to be a thinly-veiled allegory of how the artist never is fully appreciated for his art by his audience, who constantly misunderstand and treat his "art" as a novel show or entertainment. Certainly, throughout the story, both in his popular days and in his final days when he is forgotten, the hunger artist is shown to be isolated because he feels that only he truly appreciates and understands his art. He expresses dissatisfaction at only being able to fast for forty days because of the interest of the public, showing anger with his audience:

His public pretended to admire him so much, why should it have so little patience with him; if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn't the public endure it?

However, the hunger artist is forced to accept the fact that his audience will never understand the purity of his art and what he is trying to achieve:

To fight against this lack of understanding, against a whole world of non-understanding, was impossible.

Therefore, I would argue that in reality there is not a changing relationship between the hunger artist and the audience. Although quite clearly his "art" falls out of public favour and becomes unpopular, the hunger artist is clear that he feels frustrated about the lack of comprehension and understanding concerning his "art" from his audience. He feels constrained by having to perform according to set guidelines to make a profit, and in some ways is relieved when he is consigned to a cage in the circus and can follow his art the way he wants to.

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What is the central theme in "A Hunger Artist" considering the artist-audience relationship?

"A Hunger Artist" is an allegory about the artistic process. The hunger artist is famous for his ability to fast. He travels from city to city, displayed in a cage, and people come to watch him fast or to make sure that he does not secretly eat anything. He has a manager who promotes him and who decides when it is time to move on to the next city. Usually this is after forty days of fasting.

The hunger artist is committed to his "art" of fasting and frustrated by his manager's handling of him and his audience's limited attention span. He knows he can achieve even longer fasts, but there is no "market" for such extended fasts. In a way, there is a disconnect between his performances for the crowd and his actual artistic practice; it is a kind of betrayal of his principles to end his fast for the benefit of the audience when he could, in fact, fast for much longer.

It is only when the hunger artist makes a deal with the circus that he is able to fully explore his talent. As a circus side show, the hunger artist is largely forgotten, even by his circus handlers. Freed from the need to play to an audience, he is able to fast and fast, although he is unable to say for how long, since the circus people have forgotten to keep track of the days.

The irony of the hunger artist's situation is that without the limiting constraints of an audience, he is able to achieve to the utmost, but his achievement is of limited value, since no one is aware of it. This distinction, however, is of little value for the hunger artist, whose only talent is fasting; in fact, his final words are that he fasted because he could not find a food he liked, suggesting that his art was not a matter of choice but literally the only thing he could do.

Your essay about this story should discuss how the hunger artist's situation is akin to Kafka's as a writer. Kafka was a literary genius who published little during his lifetime, so in a sense, all of his writing was without an audience. It's possible this story is both a celebration of personal expression as the ultimate artistic practice and a kind of recognition of the necessity of audiences, even if they are incapable of fully appreciating artistic achievement.

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What is the central theme in "A Hunger Artist" considering the artist-audience relationship?

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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