The essays in The Hunger Artist: Food and the Arts collection trace various complexities and cultural symbolisms of hunger, appetite, and desire from the early twentieth-century modernist avant-gardes to postmodern texts and performance art. Nonetheless, in their scope, they also speak to a centuries-old interest in (human) appetite: be it in its literal and figurative form, or its socio-cultural, political, and popular reverberations. Since Plato, the artistic process has been associated with excess, but also with reining in of appetites. Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story, “The Hunger Artist,” a short story that has inspired the theme of this collection, perhaps best delineates the intricate dialectic of needing to exceed the limits of convention while simultaneously framing, curbing, honing in the desire to expand beyond such limits. Kafka’s artist turns his starvation act into an art form which both rejects and feeds on the consumerist gaze of the public. By making himself smaller, his art grows larger, but, as Kafka demonstrates, the line between the artist’s belief and semblance, reality and fiction is thin. The hunger artist, in spite of his desire to transcend his subjectivity, is, after all, only human—perhaps inhumanly so: overridden by his desire to become ‘the greatest hunger artist of all time’ by ‘surpassing even himself and entering the realm of the incomprehensible’ (Kafka 1996, p. 39), he plays into what he so starkly tries to avoid: the very process of consumption.
In the opening essay of the collection, Formulated Flesh: The Inhuman Appetite of American Modernist Poetics, Pavlina Radia draws on the works of American poets such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Djuna Barnes to explore the relationship between consumerism and American poetics. Theorizing the ways in which flaying the physical body results in a kind of formal enfleshment, or what she calls a ‘formulated flesh,’ she argues that they deploy their poetics of inhuman appetite as both an aesthetic and ethical stance to comment on the increasing consumerism and changing landscape of 1920s America.
While Kafka rejects the possibility of art as a means of transcendence, Elisa Segnini’s essay, “Babette’s Feast: Reflections of Food, Art, and Consumption,” examines Isak Dinesen’s references to food and eating as ‘metaphors to describe the artist’s potential to transcend the limitations of language, but also the ephemeral nature of any artistic pursuit.’ In “Substance into Shadow: Starvation and Death in Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps , Sue Asbee, on the other hand, deploys Bennett’s 1923 novel as a commentary on modernity’s complex relationship to consumerism through the protagonist’s refusal to eat as a means of sustaining his sense of control and agency. In her essay, “The Fortunes of Stolen Breakfast: The Slaughtered Pig, Onion, and Potato in the World War,” Veronika Ambros provides a salient contribution to the studies of Kafka, Hašek, Brecht, and Radok by delving into the complex relationship between ‘bureaucratic horrors’ and human psychology, focusing specifically on the human capacity for survival. In her reading, Ambros theorizes food as a figurative, but also literal leveller that exposes the dysfunction of totalitarian governments by pointing to the strength of the individuals who feed on challenging bureaucratic conventions through their subversive creativity and strong will.
Tracing the ways in which appetite evokes the most intimate, as well as public power relations, including ideas of and about power, the collection also investigates the ‘idea’ of hunger as a potentiality which is ‘the contrary of pleasure. It is what is never enacted, what never achieves its end. It is, in a word, a pain,’ to quote Giorgio Agamben (1995, p. 71). As Alain Badiou (2007) suggests, the twentieth-century fell prey to the appetites, specifically to the ‘passion for the real’ which ‘gives itself only by adhering to the mask,…to semblance’ (p. 38). Distancing becomes an inevitable strategy of the twentieth-century art, a strategy which meets its other end in the twenty-first century ‘reality’ TV shows that become the embodiment of semblance as the ultimate blind spot: a Sartrean dead exit par excellence. In this respect, the arc of the twentieth- and twenty-first century can be viewed as an arc of both indoctrinating and subversive intensities, to paraphrase Badiou (2007). These intensities, veiled by their own art of dissemblance, are in alignment with Agamben’s notion of revelation because, as he puts it, only ‘that which is veiled, that which is closed in itself is the only content of the revelation—light is only the coming to itself of the dark’ (Agamben 1995, p. 119). Undeniably, revelations and the veiling of the real are important prerogatives of history. In her essay, “A Real Queer Fish: Homoerotic Appetites and the Neo-Victorian (Meta)Real in Sarah Water’s Tipping the Velvet, Abigail Dennis explores the ways in which the ‘real’ of history not only remains inaccessible, but also produces a whole slew of sexual and socio-political appetites. Similarly, hunger for authenticity underlies Toni-Lee Sangastiano’s essay, Sideshow: Duality and the Reversal of a Rube’s Appetite, in which the author deploys the rube’s appetite as a grotesque subversion of social conventions.
The essays by Jenny Lawson, Catherine Bell, and Leigh Nudelman continue the line of socio-political inquiry raised by Santiago’s analysis of the Shelburne Museum’s 2010 Circus Day in America exhibition, in which she points to the ‘voyeuristic tendencies’ of consumption while simultaneously revealing its potential for subversion. Focusing on the politics of hunger, the essays by Lawson, Bell, and Nudelman take issue with various gender and racial asymmetries precipitated by the neo-colonialist politics of consumer culture. In Good Enough to Eat: Resisting the Hunger Gaze through Performance Practice, Jenny Lawson, for example, critiques the increasing objectification of women as (fast or gourmet) food in contemporary media, specifically in reference to the rising popularity of TV cooking shows. Reading her own theatre work, Good Enough to Eat, against the lens of reality cooking show personalities such as Nigela Lawson, Jenny Lawson debunks ‘tactics of visual seduction that result in sensorial, erotic, pornographic, voyeuristic, and perspectival ways of seeing, desiring, and consuming.’ In her article, Cooking Up Crimes and Maternal Misdemeanours: From Food Ritual to Transgressive Performances,Catherine Bell investigates the ‘private agenda of procreation/creation’ in her food-related performances, Making a Baby 2003-2006 and Baby Drop (2007). Similar to Bell, Leigh Nudelman aligns performance art with (post)colonial politics. In her article, The Hungry Artist, the Hungry Nation: The State of Contemporary Dance in Post-Apartheid South Africa, she critiques various cultural ideologies of dance while commenting on the significance that the hunger artist metaphor has for post-apartheid Africa.
On the other hand, the essays by Brenda Allen and Tim White turn their attention to the aesthetic and ethical nuances of hunger as exemplified in animated cinema and film. In Fast Food or Fine Nourishment: American Animated Cinema, Ratatouille and Cuisine, Brenda Allen argues for a new approach to animated texts, an approach that does not only focus on critiquing animated texts for their participation in consumer culture, but also deploys them as a critical commentary of socio-cultural relations. Tim White’s Traversing the Alimentary Canal: Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover takes this argument further by exploring how film contributes to, but also parodies various socio-cultural performances of hunger. With Silvia Ammary’s essay, Ernest Hemingway and the Aesthetics of Italian Gastronomy, the collection comes back full circle to the ambiguous appetites of modernity by exploring the relevance of food to Hemingway’s modernist aesthetics.
In conclusion, while the essays of the collection strive to explore the relevance of appetite and food metaphors in the arts—be it film, literature, reality TV shows, performance art, or animated cinema, they are merely an opening to further study. The contributors to this collection acknowledge that ‘the end of study may never come,’ but hope that the very process of investigation might serve as an ‘inspiration’ that nourishes the soul, as Agamben (1995) puts it (p. 65).
Agamben, Giorgio (1995). The Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany: SUNY)
Badiou, Alain (2007). The Century. Trans. Alberto Toscano. New York: Polity.
Kafka, Franz (1996). A Hunger Artist, trans. Kevin Blahut (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press)
Plato (1993). Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press)