Guy in a black leotard. In a cage. Not eating.
Weird? Yes. Popular? Absolutely.
At least he was popular at some point in the recent past, according to Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist."
Published in 1924, "A Hunger Artist" (also translated as "A Starvation Artist") was also the title of the short story collection in which it was included. In the story collection, Kafka presents a number of iconic artist-figures: a mouse singer, a trapeze artist, and, of course, the hunger artist. Through these characters, Kafka explores how art relates to real life, the conflict between the artist and society, and the cost of artistic perfection. Like many of Kafka's other totally weird stories (hey, Metamorphosis and "Penal Colony," we're looking at you), these stories include elements of fantasy in an ordinary world. The mash-up of the realistic and the fantastic contributes to a parable-like or allegorical quality to Kafka's work. Not that you'd ever mistake him for Aesop, though.
"A Hunger Artist" also looks ahead to contemporary performance art. Kafka was writing in the period that witnessed the provocative public events and performances staged by the Dadaists and Futurists. The more spectacular aspects of the hunger artist's performance – the theatrics on the last day of his fasting during his popular phase, the circus setting in his unpopular phase – seem to echo the theatrical strategies of these and other modern artist-provocateurs.
Scholars often view "A Hunger Artist" as a haunting fable of the fate of the artist in modern times. The story follows the career of a hunger artist from the height of his popularity to his lonely death. His performance – a kind of slow death by starving himself – could be seen as representing all artists who attempt to achieve artistic perfection. And it's an isolating business, this artistic work. Just as the hunger artist remains unappreciated and misunderstood by his audience, even at the height of his popularity, artists in general risk alienation from a society that doesn't have a taste (pun!) for their work.
These days, it seems you can't walk to a supermarket cash register without seeing yet another headline about some celebrity's weight fluctuations. Alarmingly thin models grace the covers of fashion and fitness magazines alike, while the same magazines tout the scandal surrounding so-and-so's eating disorder or the controversy around so-and-so's airbrushed hips. Fashion industry executives and designers publicly denounce the hiring of stick-thin girls to walk the runways, at the same time that they continue to hire and promote these images for their own labels.
Every once in a while, a news program or a talk show will host a show devoted to eating disorder issues, but these are the same shows that showcase the celebrities that glamorize these unhealthy body types to begin with. As a culture, we have totally conflicted feelings of frustration and envy with the current ideal. Just look at the titles of best-selling diet books: Skinny B*tch, Eat This Not That!, and This is Why You're Fat (And How to Get Thin Forever): Eat More, Cheat More Lose More – and Keep the Weight Off.
It wasn't always this way, historians tell us. During the Renaissance, for example, voluptuousness was a sign of prosperity. Even into the 19th and early 20th centuries you'll see nudes with robust hips, worshipfully painted by great artists such as Ingres, Renoir, and Manet.
In light of our current fascination with extremely thin bodies, Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" strikes a prescient chord. In the story, the popularity of hunger artists mysteriously declines. "Certainly the time for starving, as for all things, would come again," remarks the narrator. We may well wonder whether that time has come.