Both the title and the inspiration for this work come from Franz Kafka's 1992 short story, "A Hunger Artist." I read the short story in German class in the original German during my senior year of high school. 1988. I have been thinking about the implications of the story ever since.
Plot summary (from Wikipedia):
The story begins with a general description of "the hunger artist" and then narrows in on a single performer, the protagonist. The hunger artist performed in a cage for the curious spectators, and was attended by teams of watchers (usually three butchers) who ensured that he was not secretly eating. Despite such precautions, many, including some of the watchers themselves, were convinced that the hunger artist cheated. Such suspicions annoyed the hunger artist, as did the forty-day limit imposed on his fasting by his promoter, or impresario. The impresario insisted that after forty days public sympathy for the hunger artist inevitably declined. The hunger artist, however, found the time limit irksome and arbitrary, as it prevented him from bettering his own record, from fasting indefinitely. At the end of a fast the hunger artist, amid highly theatrical fanfare, would be carried from his cage and made to eat, both of which he always resented.
These performances, followed by intervals of recuperation, were repeated for many years. Despite his fame, the hunger artist felt dissatisfied and misunderstood. If a spectator, observing his apparent melancholy, tried to console him, he would erupt in fury, shaking the bars of his cage. The impresario would punish such outbursts by apologizing to the audience, pointing out that irritability was a consequence of fasting. He would then mention the hunger artist's boast that he could fast much longer than he was doing, but would show photographs of the hunger artist near death at the end of a previous fast. In this way he suggested that the hunger artist's sadness and poor physique was caused by fasting, when, in the hunger artist's view, he was depressed because of the premature cessation of his fasts. The impresario's "perversion of the truth" further exasperated the hunger artist.
Seemingly overnight, popular tastes changed and public fasting went out of fashion. The hunger artist broke his ties with the impresario and hired himself to a circus, where he hoped to perform truly prodigious feats of fasting. No longer a main attraction, he was given a cage on the outskirts of the circus, near the animal cages. Although the site was readily accessible, and crowds thronged past on their way to see the animals, any spectators who stopped to see him created an obstruction in the flow of people on their way to the animals. At first the hunger artist looked forward to the passing of the crowds, but in time he grew irritated by the noise and disruption caused by the people, and the stench, the roaring, and the feeding of the animals depressed him. Eventually, the hunger artist was completely ignored. No one, not even the artist himself, counted the days of his fast. One day an overseer noticed the hunger artist's cage with its dirty straw. He wondered why the cage was unused; when he and the attendants inspected it, however, they found the hunger artist near death. Before he died he asked forgiveness and confessed that he should not be admired, since the reason he fasted was simply that he could not find food to his liking. The hunger artist was buried with the straw of his cage and replaced by a panther. Spectators crowded about the panther's cage because the panther took so much joy in life, unlike the hunger artist. The story also mentions that the panther was always brought the food he liked, a hint to the readers that can be interpreted in many ways.
The phenomenon of the hunger artist was a real spectacle in Kafka's time. The artist performed his art in public squares across Eastern Europe, starving himself for the amusement of people. But given that it was a spectacle viewed by a public too much starvation would not be palatable for consumption by those viewing, so to speak. The very grandeur of the art...starvation...was both beyond the receptive potential of the audience and the mechanism for the art's demise. And yet the hunger artist at least begins with a desire and a need to have the splendor of his pursuit radiate before a viewing public. The hunger artist is mired in the absurd dilemma of needing and wanting to be seen but also of being unwatchable. This dilemma is central to great artistic pursuits which originate in the desire to communicate Something but which meet with the frustration of having the central communication inaccessible to those for whom the communication was intended. The cage represents this divide, creating spaces filled with expectations and decisions not aligned with the expectations and decisions inhabiting the neighboring spaces.