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  • Why Artists Starve
  • Kevin Melchionne

Although cultural types may fear being branded as philistines for saying so, a remarkable amount of contemporary art is so awful that the very fact and regularity of this awfulness is in want of an explanation. Outside the art world, this observation is jejune. Inside, it makes for immediate disqualification. Is there something about the most common artistic motivations and attitudes that make this awfulness bound to happen yet hard for insiders to sniff out?

There are probably many factors in need of elaboration. One reason is widespread self-deception about the motivations for pursuing art. We often hear artists explain their commitment to art by a desire to express themselves or develop their gifts. We hear of a love of beauty or the challenges of craft or the chance for insight into self and world. Frequently, artists describe being called to art, a feeling of being chosen by art rather than choosing it. These are familiar accounts of what makes a life or career in art worth pursuing. But the piety of these high sounding explanations is strikingly incongruent with so much—though by no means all—contemporary art and suggests that, among artists, self-deception about motivations looms large.

Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" is a parable of artistic motivation and a case study in the self-deception of the artist. In the brief story, Kafka unwinds an account of artistic motivation that begins with the familiar explanations but gives way eventually to less flattering admissions about artistic ambition. Professional fasting ultimately becomes a path to truth for the hunger artist. But the truth that it yields reduces [End Page 142] art from a source of intrinsic value to a somewhat desperate form of attention seeking. In the figure of the hunger artist, Kafka captures one self-delusion common among artists.


In "A Hunger Artist," Kafka charts the decline of an accomplished artist.1 Kafka tells us that the artist, a practitioner of what the author describes as a now forgotten genre of performance art known as professional fasting, garners a degree of notoriety for his ability to sustain fasts of death-defying lengths. Half-art, half-sport, Kafka's professional fasting amounts to sitting in a contained but public space such as a cage, where the fast is observable round-the-clock by watchers whose job is to verify its authenticity. The fast is also subject to the attention of paying spectators. Presumably, it is this commercial element as well as the secular hubbub surrounding the fast that most distinguishes it from religious fasting (out of which artistic fasting must have emerged sometime in previous centuries, had Kafka also bothered to concoct a history of the practice). A professional fast typically lasts for periods of up to the biblically resonant forty days, after which the artist is carried from his cage with great fanfare to a modest, performance ending breakfast. Through the practice of fasting, the hunger artist lifts self-denial and by implication, self-control, to the level of virtuosity. The grace of the fast and even a sense of moderate contentment in it are part of what is on display for the audience.

Notwithstanding a light routine of bonhomie, Kafka's hunger artist remains distant from his audience. He is neither buoyed by their adoration nor deflated by their vulgarity. Instead, the hunger artist seems entirely sustained by his practice. In his self-possession, we glimpse a familiar ideal of the authentic artist devoted to his practice for the sake of its intrinsic rewards. Indeed, doubts about the authenticity of his performance only fuel the hunger artist's determination. Far from insulted by the zeal of official observers, the hunger artist welcomes their vigilance. In their distrust of the hunger artist, the most severe of watchers convey a respect for the practice of professional fasting. Their desire to scrupulously ratify the authenticity of his effort is also an endorsement of its value. The earnestness of the referees pleases the hunger artist, though we are assured that their presence hardly matters. As in any authentic art, the bystanding critics are hardly necessary to ensure the integrity of the performance...


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pp. 142-148
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