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Picture a skinny artist hanging out in a cage, wearing only a black leotard. Nope, it's not a scene from a new Lady Gaga music video – it's Kafka's hunger artist.
Nowadays, we're used to the stereotype of the sensitive artist. Artists, writers, actors, rock stars – we're familiar with the tragic story of the brilliant creative type that is almost driven to self-destructive behavior by his otherworldly genius.
Enter the hunger artist, who seems to take this (already excessive) behavior to ridiculous extremes. The hunger artist's act consists of starving himself – a slow process of self-destruction – in front of an audience. While painters use paint and sculptors use clay, the artist uses his own body as his medium. And by destroying his body, you could say the artist literalizes the condition of many artists who strive for an artistic ideal or perfection that they can't find in reality. For the hunger artist, artistic perfection can only end one way: death. Like ascetics (those guys who give up worldly pleasures in order to attain a higher spiritual existence), the hunger artist destroys his body, bit by bit, in order to reach a higher state of being.
Sometimes, the hunger artist seems to view himself as some kind of artist-hero. He yearns to be the greatest hunger artist of all time, to starve for as long as possible – which ultimately leads to his death. His alienation from the world is only aggravated by the fact that it is impossible for him to express the significance of his art to others: either he can't find the right words or no one cares to understand or listen to him. Like many great artists who are underappreciated in their time (hmm… Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, John Keats, even Kafka come to mind), the hunger artist dies, forgotten and unappreciated, his accomplishments unrecognized.
Enter the panther. Against the artist's aspirations to attain artistic glory and immortality, the story poses the pure animal energy of a "noble" panther. By doing so, the story raises an important question: is there anything ennobling about the pursuit of artistic or spiritual perfection? Is life, even animal life, worth sacrificing for such a pursuit?
Sorry, but this is a question that neither the panther nor the artist can answer – each for their own reasons.