Kanye West, Hunger Artist

by Daniel Herman

Kanye West has spent the weeks leading up to the release of “Yeezus” demanding the world consider and respond to his new material and also insisting he doesn’t care what any of us thinks of it. We might be surprised by this seemingly paradoxical position, if it wasn’t such a familiar stance.

One notable antecedent for this conflict is Franz Kafka, for whom the relationship between artist and audience was a particularly knotty issue — and who memorably explored the relationship in his short story “Ein Hungerkünstler” (“A Hunger Artist”). Although Kafka stipulated that almost his entire body of work be destroyed upon his death, this short story was one of the few pieces he directed be saved from the flames, suggesting that Kafka saw it as having some hermeneutical power over the rest of his oeuvre.

In Kafka’s story, his unnamed narrator begins by explaining that, in past decades, the European public took great interest in what he calls “professional fasting.” A “hunger artist,” he tells us, could make a good living traveling from town to town, starving himself. The artist would sit in “a small barred cage” in the town square, where the public could pay to view his emaciated figure, and marvel at his self-denial and fortitude. After forty days, with great fanfare, the hunger artist’s impresario would shut down the operation, arranging for the (yes, starving) artist to be tenderly carried out over the shoulders of “two young ladies, blissful at having been selected for the honor.” The town rejoiced; the hunger artist moved onto the next town, the next square, the next barred cage.

Fasting as an artistic medium is like the suffering and self-denial that some artists say is an elemental part of artistic expression. Kanye said as much in an interviewwith The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica just last week: “Creative output, you know, is just pain. I’m going to be cliché for a minute and say that great art comes from pain.”

But the hunger artist’s internal experience is far different from the one the impresario seeks to display to the public. For while the artist needs the appreciation of an audience to give his work meaning, he also recognizes that the audience will never be able to satisfactorily understand and appreciate his work. And although he knows he will be the only sufficient critic of his own work, he is helpless to admit that his solitary perspective is not sufficient for his effort.

Both Kanye and the hunger artist spend much of their time considering their audience, who so cautiously approach the “small barred cage” in the town square, to peek into their world from without. By offering his art, by putting himself on display, he’s completely exposed, everyone sees everything he does. (For Kanye, the paparazzi are the most salient example.) That display, that appearance before an audience, is essential to the artistic impulse — and not just monetarily essential. The hunger artist has chosen “professional” fasting, rather than remaining an amateur, where he might have created his art in silence and solitude.

Kanye, similarly, began his career as a mostly anonymous producer. He was certainly well compensated for the hits he wrote for Scarface, Cam’Ron, and, most famously, Jay-Z, and could have had a very successful career as a producer (eventually placed alongside Prince Paul, J Dilla and DJ Premier on the Mount Rushmore of hip hop’s instrumental greats). But as he has so exhaustively catalogued in his lyrics, he wasn’t content with remaining anonymously behind the mixing boards (“in that old back room,” he says in his Jay-Z reconciliation track “Big Brother”).

Upon release of his first album in 2004 (featuring hits “Slow Jam” and “Jesus Walks”), Kanye quickly became one of the most famous artists in the world. He has described making trips to the mall right before the album dropped, knowing his anonymity would not last long. Here was a guy who is unbelievably talented, and who knew he was able to do things no one else can do. For that, he needs other people to confirm his greatness. In Kafka’s terms, he was preparing for the cage.

The corollary to being exposed is getting exposure. Kafka describes in great detail the “permanent watchers” who surround the hunger artist in his cage. They exert a profound influence not only on the artist’s behavior, but the very nature of his art. In the town square, these “watchers” are the town butchers: experts in food, purveyors of flesh and nourishment. They are the individuals least qualified to judge the quality of the “starvation art” being produced within the steel bars on the straw-strewn floor.

In Kanye West’s case, these are music critics — experts in the enjoyment of music, sure, but considered the least qualified to judge the self-sacrifice required for the creation of great art.

Kafka further subdivides these watchers into two categories: the first group purposely turn a blind eye to the cage, out of compassion for the hunger artist’s misery, hoping to let him sneak some food, take the easy way out. These are people who doubt the reality of his art, doubt the pain and effort it demands. (In Kanye’s case, they refuse to believe that someone as materialistic and crass as he is could be a true artist, and insist his music is as vapid as they take him to be). This “makes him miserable,” his suffering “unendurable.” The hunger artist “master[s] his feebleness sufficiently to sing for them… for as long as he could keep going” (as Kanye does on “808s and Heartbreak”) — to show he’ll never take the easy way out, to prove he’s truly suffering in there.

The hunger artist much prefers the second group. These are the butchers pressed up to the bars, hanging on his every word — for Kanye, every hostile interview, every leak from the studio. They are the ones “who sat up close to the bars, who were not content with the dim night lighting of the hall but focused him in the full glare of the electric pocket torch given them by the impresario.” (Note the literal spotlight.) He is quite happy spending a long sleepless night under their accusatory stares.

But the hunger artist’s “happiest moment” comes the following morning, when — at his own expense — he provides breakfast for these self-appointed arbiters of (ahem) taste. For Kanye, this is the pre-release listening party for the critical literati — watching as his suffering is transformed into a literal product for public consumption. He watches as they devour the bounty he’s provided for them, satisfied to “demonstrate to them again that he… was fasting as not one of them could fast” — or, as Kanye says in “POWER,” “Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it / Screams from the haters got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music.” He finds strength in showing how much better he is and how much more loudly hated he is: they can be so easily satiated, while he’s suffering for his art.

But there are problems with relying on an audience. For one thing, the hunger artist is quite literally imprisoned by his art. He’s expected to look a certain way, behave in a certain manner. He is obligated to make a spectacle of himself. For Kafka’s hunger artist, this means being surrounded by “torch flares,” looking “pallid in black tights,” “staring into vacancy with half shut eyes.” For Kanye, it’s the leather kilt, the Horus chain, the$50,000 watch. It’s the juvenile megalomania, the crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone.

But there is a more fundamental misalignment between the relationship between artist and audience. Kafka writes:

No one could possibly watch the hunger artist continuously, day and night, and so no one could produce first-hand evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that, he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast.

Critics, even the most rabid fans, always disappoint. As Kanye constantly reminds us, he is the only one who sufficiently appreciates how truly great he is. The artist is doomed to remain the only completely adequate critic of his own work.

The artistic impulse is founded upon some fundamental dissatisfaction with life, the artist’s expression the only way to find some satiation in existence. This explains Kafka’s initially odd choice of a “hunger” artist. But for most artists, it isn’t enough to just express these things and put them in a drawer and let that be it. They need to be appreciated for what they go through. They need the spotlight, the doubtful watchers.

The watchers are fickle. Kafka tells us that there is a limit to what the audience will accept from the artist’s performance:

The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at forty days, beyond that term he was not allowed to go, not even in great cities, and there was good reasons for it, too. 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, sympathetic support began noticeably to fall off.

Why should the hunger artist not be allowed to pursue his art to its fullest potential? If the result of his suffering leads to only greater and more fascinating art, shouldn’t the public’s fascination continue to grow as that suffering increases?

We can think of the early part of Kanye’s solo career as the first forty days. His first three albums are deep but untroubling, complex but uncomplicated. His award show antics were seen as dickish but fascinating, and hard not to find just a little bit charming. He called the President of the United States a racist on live television, and suffered little recrimination — really, was applauded for his spontaneous eloquence and honesty.

When “Graduation,” the last installment in his “education trilogy,” was released in 2007, it was greeted with the sort of celebration Kafka describes for his hunger artist: “the flower-bedecked cage was opened, enthusiastic spectators filled the hall, a military band played, two doctors entered the cage to measure the results of the fast, which were announced through a megaphone.” The album sold nearly 500,000 copies in the first day (and also effectively ended 50 Cent’s career). We assumed Kanye was at the peak of his powers.

Two months later, his mother died, and his six-year relationship with designer Alexis Phifer ended. The music that resulted from this period, 2008’s “808s and Heartbreak,” reflects his frustration with the musical parameters that he had been previously afforded. The songs are brittle, often brutal. Album opener “Say You Will” ends with a three-minute instrumental outro, an austere meditation from the titular drum machine. At 4:45, it seems to signal its conclusion, before resuming for another grim 90 seconds.

The backlash was immediate. Pitchfork denied him “Best New Music” status for the first (and only) time in his career. Webzine CokeMachineGlow called the album “everything it wants to be and so much less.”

One lesson Kafka seems to want us to draw from “A Hunger Artist” is that while audiences are fascinated by the spectacle of great art and artists, true suffering makes them uncomfortable. (See also: John Lennon, Fiona Apple, Joaquim Phoenix’s mockumentarian beard.) The hunger artist’s impresario insists that he not go beyond a certain point — for beyond this point, the public gets turned off. (Kanye alluded to an impresario of sorts last week, when he told Caramanica that his label had asked him to release “808s” under a pseudonym.) The artist may be moved to push his art to ever further heights — but the market forces him to pull back. He remains locked to, and dependent on, the very audience that so disgusts and disappoints him.

All these things pile up together — the critics who encourage him to take the easy route and make nice easy hit singles that aren’t as emotionally demanding; the haters that accuse him of trying to do so; the audience that loses interest if he goes too far; and the music business people who insist he not do anything outlandish.

As an artist, and as a critic of his own work, this causes a hunger artist intense dissatisfaction. Because he alone sees the direct connection between what’s going on inside of him and the work this leads him to produce. He feels like he is the only one who can really appreciate what a genius he is. Only he knows that his performance, which astounds the public, is a mediocre, effortless and compromised one.

So he lived for many years, with small regular intervals of recuperation, in visible glory, honored by the world, yet in spite of that troubled in spirit, and all the more tousled because no one would take his trouble seriously. What comfort could he possibly need? What more could he possibly wish for? And if some good-natured person, feeling sorry for him, tried to console him by pointing out that his melancholy was probably caused by fasting, it could happen, especially when he had been fasting for some time, that he reacted with an outburst of fury and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of his cage like a wild animal.

For the artist, the only thing that is uncomplicated for him is his art. And this makes him understandably angry, having to attempt to explain himself to the uncomprehending public. Anyone who has seen Kanye’s November 2010 interview with Matt Lauer — or his recalls his infamous phrase “Imma let you finish” — will be familiar.

Kanye describes 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” as “my long, backhanded apology. You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology. It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: ‘Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.’” It was also heralded as a masterpiece, and topped many critics’ year-end top-ten lists.

Since then, the balancing act has continued. “Watch the Throne,” his collaboration with Jay-Z, tiptoed between winsome materialism and pugilistic militarism. His relationship with professional celebrity Kim Kardashian was assumed by many to be a publicity stunt or some kind of conceptual art piece, until they announced she was pregnant with a baby girl. He recently returned to the stage of his old nemesis “Saturday Night Live,” only to play new songs called “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.”

In Kafka’s story, the career of the hunger artist ends with humiliation. The public tires of his art, and he is reduced to joining a circus, and performing in a menagerie, surrounded by caged animals. He is finally able to create art to its fullest extent, but without an audience to witness his performance, he finds it is meaningless:

And so the artist simply fasted on and on, as he had once dreamed of doing, and it was no trouble to him, just as he had always foretold, but no one counted the days, no one, not even the artist himself, knew what records he was already breaking, and his heart grew heavy.

When he at last starves himself to death, fulfilling the ultimate potential of his art, his place in the cage is taken by a young panther. The animal possesses none of the hunger artist’s demanding hyper-intellectualism, and the audience is delighted.

The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought to him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point where in his jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded round the cage, and did not want ever to move away.

Kanye is instead attempting to do something that the hunger artist would not have dared — to push well past the forty-day threshold while remaining very much in the spotlight of public opinion. It’s a bold gambit, and seems in all ways intended for provocation. “Yeezus” leaked on Friday, and is currently being hungrily devoured by the butchers surrounding the small barred cage.

Daniel Herman lives in Berkeley, California. Photo by Kristoffer Trolle.