The Hunger Artist sits in a cage of straw, open to the elements. Crowds come to gawk at his skeletal frame as he slowly wastes away. For forty days, nothing passes his mouth except for some drops of water that he uses to wet his lips. To prove that he is no fake or swindler, the Hunger Artist is watched all the time, often by portly butchers who feast on a vast breakfast right before his eyes. It is a show that people pay to see, shocked and amazed by the Hunger Artist’s self-abnegation.
That is the plot of one of Franz Kafka’s greatest short stories, known in the original German as Ein Hungerkünstler and written over ninety years ago.
Reading A Hunger Artist again, I was struck by how prescient it was. Starvation in the name of entertainment is now in vogue for real. In the 2014 Academy Awards, Matthew McConaughey has been praised for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. As part of his preparations for the role, Matthew McConaughey lost 20 kilos in a dramatic and savage diet.
Let me repeat, McConaughey lost 20 kilos for our entertainment, despite the fact that they could represent the same using CGI or just by hiring a naturally thin actor. This matters because it makes a public statement of approval from the film industry. The Academy Awards are the Oscars of the film world.
Would an actress be praised for such dramatic weight loss? Considering the howls of outrage that greet a zero-size model on her first appearance on the catwalk, I doubt it. The fashion industry itself has already moved far beyond societal norms in the way it forces models to be unnaturally thin.
Acting is a mysterious art and a great deal goes into a successful performance. I have no doubt that McConaughey is also being celebrated for his overall work. Christian Bale, for example, did not receive a nomination for The Machinist in 2004 when he underwent a similar diet. Nevertheless, the hook for the press remains the weight loss. It is so unnecessary to do this. We don’t need to marvel at hunger artists in real life.
So please, actors, just say the lines and try not to fall over the furniture. It’ll be better for everyone.
You can read an English translation of A Hunger Artist here.