For the Love of Art, and Verfremdung

Artists often criticize; they interpret the world within a new light; they portray a point through imagery. The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka portrays a figure who is so obsessed with his own art and artistic interpretation, he takes it upon himself to torture his own body in order to criticize his onlookers, almost as the old ascetic Monks separated themselves in order to bring themselves closer to God. But Kafka’s Artist is no monk; he directly criticizes the gluttonous onlookers. To do this, the Artist breaks a sort of fourth wall, imposing his tiny, suffering body upon the onlookers.

The onlookers are even compared with butchers; always mentioned as hungry or criticizing, glaring, and gazing. In the Artist’s mockery, he is also taking part in his own sort of sick entertainment. Kafka alternates contrasting images of comfort and well-fed people, to the bony and sharply protruding, strained Artist. His sets all this on a stage confined within the bars of a cage where the Artist watches in “his happiest moment […] when the morning came and an enormous breakfast was brought for them, at his expense, on which they flung themselves with the keen appetite of healthy men after a weary night of wakefulness.”  His body as his canvas, he chisels away the fat and excess in his body to create his masterpiece, the perfect opposite of what the onlookers strive for in life. The text separates the reader from the onlookers by describing the story through the eyes of the Artist, alienating the reader along with the Artist and setting an immediate bias towards “normal” society from within the cage’s bars.

From the very first paragraph and continuously throughout the text the concept over-indulgence of nourishment, refreshment, gluttony is criticized. He follows these paragraphs with the notion of nourishment in small amounts, and just enough to satisfy, a concept these onlookers wouldn’t be able to grasp. Pleasure is not something that the Artist yearns for, but can appreciate when it occurs. His ability to appreciate such small amounts of nourishment, without taking the smallest bit of pleasure in the nourishment separate him from society. This ability is his grounds for criticizing the onlookers. The Artist is defined as being older, and “past his prime”, a wise figure. Perhaps in this way the artist is more honorable because he is laughing at the ignorance of the happy, fat onlookers who “will never understand” the world in which the Artist grew up. The new generation of onlookers criticizes and cannot believe what they do not understand. In fact they cannot grasp- the concept of  him fasting consistently, even if the protruding bones of his body prove it. The disbelief is what perturbs the Artist the most.

The body creates tension in the text, tightly clung to his small, skeletal figure. The Artist though, is quite comfortable in it, yet the rest of society finds it disturbing. His body is his masterpiece; it represents his Art of extended fasting that he has done for years. His body and bones are the perfect example of rejecting the norm. They are perfect, for he has done it for so long, even in his old age “he could fast as well as ever, which was entirely credible.” He had perfected a fasting machine and reached exactly his goal, onlookers saw him as an extreme outsider, the circus freak. He took more pleasure in being the freak, as the opposite of that would be ignorance. This depiction of a perfect body image creates a very harsh tension between the artist and the society. The story reads:

Marveling at him as he sat there pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently, not even on a seat but down among straw on the ground, sometimes giving a courteous nod, answering questions with a constrained smile, or perhaps stretching an arm through the bars so that one might feel how thin it was, and then again withdrawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything.

Pretending to be the nice guy, the artist extends his bony arm to purposely make the onlookers uncomfortable, sticking his arm out as if to break Brecht’s fourth wall and creating a verfremdungseffekt. This method of Alienation is shown amongst the two young women as well. The Artist takes his only slight pleasure in the society’s ignorant discomfort. He is vain; he does not suffer for the public. The cruelty of the world is underlined in the text with the treatment of him and his differences from anyone outside of the cage, the Artist “looked up into the eyes of the ladies who were apparently so friendly and in reality so cruel, and shook his head, which felt too heavy on its strengthless neck,” the onlookers often pitied him, but also were repulsed by him.

He does not ask for sympathy, does not want pity, for there is no pity to be had in an honorable profession, and on the occasion that someone tried to console him, it is mentioned that his irritability is “a condition hardly to be understood by well-fed people.” He pleads for pity from them, and they have no other emotion to share with him. Yet he rebels against that emotion he receives. He wants them to realize that the world in which they live doesn’t allow them to experience art for its honor, but as a pleasure for personal, gluttonous enjoyment, staring greedily at his suffering body. The vain artist feels that he is a step above the greedy public and thus separates himself from them. He fights “against this lack of understanding, against a whole world of non-understanding,” and realizes, that it is also impossible, and useless, even through repulsion and alienation. He suffered in “visible glory, honored by the world, yet in spite of that, troubled in spirit, and all the more troubled because no-one would take his trouble seriously.” The Artist made his point, and died in his cage, after a life of relaying a message lost on an ignorant society.

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