Like literature, art is a bastion of culture. For culture to blossom, there needs to be constant communication between the different facets of culture, a constant stream of ideas that flow between artists and writers. Kafka partakes in this communication in his short story, “A Hunger Artist.” He outlines the life and death of an artist who starves himself as performance art because he cannot find food he enjoys eating. The hunger artist, on his deathbed, realizes that his art shouldn’t be admired. By creating an artist whose art is self-expressionist and who realizes that his work shouldn’t be esteemed, Kafka expresses his belief that art should have a justification, thereby criticizing the Modernist idea of “art for art’s sake.”
Kafka crafts his story as a parable about an artist to lay the foundation for his response to the Modernist movement. The hunger artist starves himself as a form of self-expression. Because he “couldn’t find the food [he] liked,” the hunger artist instead chooses to demonstrate his dislike of food by fasting. Kafka’s portrayal of the hunger artist is very similar to the Modernist art movement occurring concomitantly. The Modernist movement believed in the saying “art for art’s sake.” Also aptly named as Aestheticism, Modernism focused on the beauty of art instead of wanting it having a deeper meaning. The artists of this time period created beautiful art without necessarily imbuing socio-political issues into their works. Kafka uses the hunger artist to represent the “art for art’s sake” movement, and the hunger artist’s final words truly reveal Kafka’s opinion of the movement.
The short story’s finale conveys Kafka’s criticism of the Modernist belief. When the hunger artist loses popularity, he joins the circus where he fades into anonymity. The staff at the circus finds his work so forgettable and pointless that the circus staff think his cage was a foolishly unused cage. In the hunger artist’s last moments, he has an exchange with the circus overseer, telling him that he shouldn’t admire the hunger artist since he fasted because he “couldn’t find the food [he] liked.” The artist indicates that his art is not worthy of public attention because it was simply done for self-expression. There were neither deeper meanings nor socio-political critiques. There were no reasons for the public to appreciate his self-expressionistic art. After the hunger artist’s death, he is quickly replaced by a panther. In the hunger artist’s last moments, Kafka comments that artists whose works are created simply for art’s sake will suffer from anonymity because their art has no meaning. There is no reason for their art to remain in the world. Instead, it wastes space just like the circus staff thought there was a foolishly unused cage.
“A Hunger Artist” is Kafka’s criticism of the belief that art should be beautiful and about self-expression. He believes that art with no meaning is a waste of space, and that it is nothing to be admired.