Kafka’s View of Art and Artists

I have almost no memory of writing this. Sophomore year was an insane blur of work, 8 am classes, 8 pm exams, plays, and poetry readings. I’m surprised I got anything done.

Kafka’s stories about artists expose his feelings and insecurities about art and what it is to be an artist. He felt that art was at its most real when it was not about making the audience happy, what makes an artist famous is not talent but the attention of the audience, to attempt to be a writer free of the constraints of society was impossible as writing is hopelessly dependent on the world’s influence, to be an artist is to permanently lose a part of yourself and become something else. In his stories: The Starvation Artist, Josephine the Singer, The Metamorphosis, and Report to an Academy; Kafka examines that conflicts in his mind with regard to art. The Starvation Artist examines the artist dependence on his audience, Josephine the Singer highlights the impact talent has on popularity, The Metamorphosis surveys the risk involved in staying true to one’s art, Report to an Academy is a study is what it takes to be a successful artist.

In The Starvation Artist, Kafka writes of a man whose art is to abstain from all sustenance. He is the personification of the starving artist, an individual who survives solely on his art. In the beginning the artist is caged, forced by his manager and his audience to keep his art within the confines of their attention span, “experience had proven that for about forty days, through gradually intensified publicity, you could go on stimulating a city’s interest, but beyond that time there was no audience”(Selected Stories,88), to do what’s best for business. In the end, when he has reached the pinnacle of his art while subsequently literally vanishing from the public eye, he has his smallest audience ever. He speaks only to the supervisor, but it is at this moment that he is at his most truthful, his most real, that he is able to finally reveal the truth behind his art but in the same breath to reveal himself as a lie, “I have to starve, I can’t help it…because I could not find the food I liked”(Selected Stories,93-94). The truth is that his art was not a talent as much as an obligation. He was an opportunist as all artists are, working from a place a longing and using it to fulfill himself. As an artist is dependent on and is therefore sustained by them, the artist is fine to starve as long as people as watching but as soon as they are gone is reduced nearly to dust. Efraim Sicher, in his essay “The Semiotics of Hunger”, says that “art has become literally an act of self-destruction, not just a sacrificial death of the author, not just the giving of one’s all in the self-destructive act of creation”.

In her essay, Justifying the Esthetic in Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer”, Eleanor Scholz says that Kafka’s statement is that what makes a celebrity famous is not their talent but the power they gain from attention. “Even in moments of intense danger, if Josephine begins to sing, the perpetually overworked creatures (the title suggests that they are mice, rather than humans) will pause and divert their energies, gathering around her to convene in rapt attention and silence through her performance.” Though they may not admit what her singing means to them, it does mean a lot. Josephine is not remarkable in her abilities, only in her willingness to use them, “Is it even song, then? Isn’t it perhaps just squeaking?…All of us squeak, but of course no one dreams of passing it off as art(Selected Stories,95). Kafka is saying that all people have the ability to create art if only they will take the initiative. When Josephine tries to get out of doing physical work by saying that it will affect her voice and is shut down by the people who do not believe her “squeaking” is important enough to warrant it. In the end, the narrator states, “Josephine, however, can only go downhill. Soon the time will come when her last squeak peals out and fall silent”(Selected Stories, 107). Like the starvation artist, it would seem that Josephine is nothing without her audience. Kafka is making a statement about artists who are not well known and therefore have to work to pay the bills, with the knowledge that they are unlikely to ever break free of that cycle.

The Metamorphosis is Kafka’s attempt to explain what happens to an unknown artist who tries to make art his life. “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”(Metamorphosis,3). As a literal vermin, Gregor is a real representation of the concept that an artist feeds off of others, in this case his family. It is as though, that morning, Gregor decides to pursue his art full time. He does not go to work and because of this, loses his job. He finally has the freedom to express himself but not the inspiration. His family forces him to remain inside, to keep others from finding out that he has become a “vermin”, and he has nothing from which to draw ideas. He is free, as when he hangs from the ceiling, “it was completely different from lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; a faintly swinging sensation went through the body”(Metamorphosis,23), the weight of the earth literally off his back in that moment but his family see him as a burden. At first they indulge his fantasy but eventually grow tired of it and ultimately disown him as he lost his worth to the family when he permanently left his place as breadwinner. Kafka felt writing lacked independence of the world that it is “helpless, cannot live in itself, is a joke and a despair.” Gregor is the literal personification of this in The Metamorphosis. He is a vermin; living off his parents and forced to allow his sister to care for him. Before his metamorphosis, his art is a hobby as he has to work long hours. When he affixes himself to the frame he made, he is making a stand to defend his art against those who would take it from him. His mother sees this and faints. His father, enraged, becomes violent, throwing apples at him until one becomes lodged in Gregor’s back. This is Kafka’s statement about the danger of being an artist. Unlike Josephine (who quit) or the starvation artist (who was obligated), Gregor does all he can to continue his art and is attacked for it, attacked for being shocking and bold. It is the apple to his back that brings about his slow and painful death, as a bad review or scandal can end a struggling artist’s career. His family/audience are no longer interested in him as he slowly withers, dies and is tossed away with the trash. Like the starvation artist, Gregor’s dedication to his art alienates him from his audience and it ultimately his downfall.

Red Peter of Report to an Academy begins his “act” of imitation in an attempt to get out of a cage in the same way that authors begin to write, to get out of the confines of their everyday life. He imitates, and mocks, the actions of his “teachers” in a way that other humans would not be able to get away with. This is how Kafka treats language, he twists metaphors in ways that most people would never dare and gets away with it because as an artist he is afforded the liberty of unique style. Moray Mair cites the moment when Peter drank from the bottle “with no grimace, like a professional drinker, with rolling eyes and full throat, actually and truly drank it empty; then threw the bottle away, not this time in despair but as an artistic performer; forgot, indeed, to rub my belly; but instead of that, because I could not help it, because my senses were reeling, called a brief and unmistakable “Hello!” breaking into human speech, and with this outburst broke into the human community.” This is the moment when Peter transitions through his art from ape to something other than ape though he will never be human. He has found his art but lost a part of his identity in the process. He has given up on the art being his own truth and allowed his audience to decide what it will be.  From then on, his art will always be a search for a place to belong while it is the thing that will keep him from finding it. He connects with the audience and keeps them interested. In this way, he is successful. Unlike all of the other artists, who lose their audiences, Peter adapts to his and seems to thrive where the others have wasted away.

In his stories, Kafka reveals a lot about his view of art and artists. He presents the artist as someone seeks to remove themselves from society but it always dependent on it, truth as an aspect that relies on the artist being true to him or herself above all others, popularity as a factor of attention-getting rather than talent, art as a place to lose oneself on the road to find a new identity. The messages sometimes conflict but ultimately present the struggle an artist when through in finding his place within the world of the artist.

Partial Works Cited

Efraim Sicher: “The Semiotics of Hunger”

Eleanor Scholz, Justifying the Esthetic in Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer”

A Report to an Academy – Reflections on a Short Story by Franz Kafka



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