The role of an artist has always remained a discussed issue; whether his/her activity was considered prestigious or, backwards, aimed at entertaining the crowd, the personality of an artist has always been perceived as that contrasted with the rest of the society; as that being separated from the concerns of the everyday life and minor, insignificant issues.
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Not accidentally, the question of an artist’s role has often become an object of attention of artists themselves, in particular, writers: the interaction of an artist and the world around him/her has become a topic for a series of works of literature. In this paper, we will discuss A Hunger Artist (Kafka), the work of Franz Kafka, an outstanding German-language writer, that in an allegoric way depicts the role of an artist during the modernist period.
In the image of the protagonist of the story, Kafka depicts a modernist artist, misunderstood, marginalized, “infected” by a specific “melancholy” peculiar to the way modernist artists perceived life and the world around them, as well as observes how an artist interacts with the “addressees” of his/her artistic “message”, which is his/her works.
A Hunger Artist tells a reader about a specific genre of “art”, which is “professional fasting”: an artist performed his long-term fasting to numerous observers. Artist’s fasting was his way to express his ideas and share it with the observers (204-205). During a certain period, “professional fasting” was of big popularity awakening strong interest of the society, says Kafka; however, the story describes the period of the decline of the “genre” and its graduate “collapse”.
In the course of narration, not only does Kafka depict the act of fasting itself and observers’ reaction on it, but he also throws light upon the artist’s inner experience, which makes the story of particular value for a reader interested in history of art. In the personality of the hunger artist, we may notice the generalized character of a modernist artist, and in the actions of fasting, we may recognize the characteristics of modernism as an epoch in history of art.
Let us now discuss the peculiarities of modernism in culture and art to better understand the allegory of Kafka’s work. For the period of modernist culture, it was characteristic for art to be alienated from the everyday life, as well as from the majority of the “ordinary audience”; it is possible to say that the art was created by the “select few” and for the “select few” (Storey 182).
This was caused by certain academicism of modernist works of art, by complexity of ideas and the ways of expressing them with the means of art. If we try to create the generalized image of a modernist artist, we will imagine a misunderstood person whose ideas and concerns are far from those ordinary and everyday; a person whose feelings and thoughts are complicated and contradictory; thus, the inner world of an artist is the center of the modernist works.
It will be not an overstatement to call a modernist artist a “marginalized person”: on the one hand, he/she exists within a community and demonstrates his/her works to it; on the other hand, the actual distance between them is very big, and the artist does not “fit into” the community. Not accidentally, modernist works could be hardly appreciated by the majority of ordinary readers/viewers.
Moreover, it is interesting that this misunderstanding was peculiar to different strata of the society: while poorer people became not interested in modernist art because of insufficient education and background, the “elite” was also indifferent to the essence of the modernist works focusing on the form instead of content: Meier-Graefe writes, “The incomprehensibility of painting and sculpture to the general public has been shrouded in a veil of pretentious exposition” (Meier-Graefe 205); thus, modernist art was really “marginalized”, not fitting into the interest of different social groups.
These trends are allegorically depicted by Kafka in his work: we see a misunderstood hunger artist who has a complicated view on his calling and his “art”, which actually differs from that of the observers coming to see him; Kafka defines the artist’s state as “a condition hardly to be understood by well-fed people” (Kafka 208).
This distance between the interests of a “fasting” artist and the “well-fed” people is in fact the main tragedy in modernist art: while an artist focuses on a high idea that he delivers to the audience, the audience themselves are interested in “manners” rather than “matters” and aspire for being entertained. The embodiment of the artist’s position in his environment is the cage where he is placed.
On the one hand, his artistic will is “imprisoned” by the audience’s tastes and mood: the period of fasting lasts for forty days; then the “show” finishes, as the observers’ interest diminishes (206); on the other hand, the cage is a symbol of the artist’s marginalization and separateness from the rest of the society.
However, when we have discussed a modernist artist’s position relative to his audience, the question may arise: what is the cause of this marginalization? What makes the artist be “misunderstood” and “separated”: inner conflicts, disagreement with the world around him, or maybe, specific pride of an artist who wants to perform himself as “outstanding”, not clear for the rest?
No doubt, for Kafka this question is also of big significance; that is why, in his A Hunger Artist, he provides his own answer to it: being asked about the reason for his fasting, the artist says, “…Because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else” (211).
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Thus, we may conclude that the separateness of a modernist artist is of the dual nature: on the one hand, it is his choice to express his complicated ideas and thus to be a “marginalized person”; on the other hand, his opposition to the world is sincere and not feigned: the modernist era was the period of doubts, challenges, and testing the boundaries of all existing notions.
Thus, being in the constant condition of search, the artist was nevertheless not able to find the “food” he would really like. This circle gave birth to specific “melancholy” of a modernist artist; Kafka uses the allegory of the artists “melancholy… caused by fasting” (207).
Another interesting question is the destiny of the modernist art. In his work, Kafka touches upon this issue as well expressing his opinion in the allegorical end of the story: after trying himself as a fasting artist in a circus where people prefer to look at the animals rather than at him, the artist dies, and his cage is given to a young, strong panther (211).
Unlike the fasting artist, the panther awakens joy and brings good mood to the visitors of the circus. The “work” of a fasting artist turns out to be not “competitive” comparing to the animals kept in the circus. “Perhaps, said the hunger artist to himself, many a time, things would be a little better if his cage were set not quite so near the menagerie.
That made it too easy for people to make their choice”, with this quotation, Kafka reflects the mood of the crowd coming to the circus, and their expectations about the show. In fact, the end of the story reminds us about a change that took place in the middle of the 20th century: the “elitist” modernist culture is replaced by popular culture, and then by postmodernist culture.
As a result, the borders between commercial and not commercial, “high” and “low” culture are eliminated; culture is now neighboring to the everyday life and is thus accessible for ordinary people. The fusion of art and entertainment is not bad manners any more (Storey 183-185). The new, “popular culture” is similar to Kafka’s young panther; “The panther was all right”, says Kafka in the final sentences of his work (Kafka 211).
Understanding the real-life context of a work of literature always helps a reader better understand its idea; having touched upon the role of the artist in the modernist era, Kafka gives us opportunity to get the notion of the society of that period, and, what is the most interesting, of the inner experience of a modernist artist. Having chosen the allegorical way of expressing his ideas, Kafka nevertheless has depicted the characteristic features of modernist culture very precisely and eloquently.
Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist.” The Tyranny of the Normal: An Anthology. Eds. Donley, Carol, and Sheryl Buckley. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996. 204-211. Print.
Meier-Graefe, Julius. “The Development of Modern Art.” Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Eds. Frascina, Francis, and Charles Harrison. London: Paul Chapman, 1982. 205-209. Print.
Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 5th ed. New York, London: Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.