Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, February 29, 2016

KAFKA: A Hunger Artist (Art and Society)

John Stuart Mill praises the blessings of liberty and makes the case that society should spread those blessings as deeply and as widely as possible (Mill, On Liberty, IGB 3-5).  But Edmund Burke argues that “I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one… The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.”  (Burke, Reflections, GB 5-11)  The main character in Franz Kafka’s short story has liberty and is free to choose his own path in life.  He chooses to be a Hunger Artist. 

Let’s set aside the hunger part for a moment.  Why do some people choose to be artists?  In the introductory material Kafka says “I believe we should read only those books that bite and sting us.  If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?”  A Hunger Artist is a good example of Kafka’s theory.  It’s a story that should make every reader think more deeply about the nature of art.  The story says “we live in a different world now.”  Which immediately leads to a question.  Is the world really much different now than it was back in Kafka’s day (1883-1924)?  Some readers would reply, of course.  Not that much different, others would respond.  And both sides could back up their arguments.  Ask the question, but is art different now?  And we’d get pretty much the same responses for the same reasons.  The nature of art reflects the nature of the world.  People don’t always share the same worldview so how could they possibly share the same opinions about art?  The Hunger Artist is at the center of this controversy.  For some readers he’s a “suffering martyr” for art and for others he’s just another naïve artist wasting his life chasing dreams.  Kafka writes that “it was the children’s special treat to see the hunger artist; for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion.”  The children and the elders were seeing the same “art.”  Why did the elders often think it was just a joke?  Is it because they had seen so many fads come and go?  Were the elders jaded to the ways of the world, while children still had enough purity and innocence of life to behold the wonders of art without trying to analyze? 

Kafka is on to something here.  He’s obviously trying to tell readers something that can’t be expressed in the format of a philosophical essay.  Instead, he wants to show us the nature of Art and the nature of Man in the form of a story.  It’s not an uplifting story; more like a blow to the head.  Here’s one example of Kafka’s prose style.  “Experience had proved that for about forty days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest.”  What does that tell us about “the public” and about the “pressure of advertisement” in the modern world?  Can true art find a home in such a world?  Or take another example.  In the story there’s a rule that the public fast can only continue for forty days.  Then the "performance" is officially over and the Hunger Artist must take some food for nourishment.  The Hunger Artists asks, why?  “If he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn’t the public endure it?”  It’s a good theoretical question and leads to a more practical one.  Is government in the business of setting limits on what can and what cannot be done in artistic performances?  Is censorship the government’s job?  Can true art find a home in such a world?  The theoretical question (what is art) gets tangled up with the practical problem of the blessings of liberty.  Is it really a blessing to be free to go buy tickets and watch “artists” voluntarily starving themselves to death?  We’d better be prepared to answer because, as Kafka writes, “Fasting would surely come into fashion again at some future date…”  Kafka is on to something here.  It’s not a pleasant vision.  But is it art?  Is this what we want?


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