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Published in "Legacy Online" October, 2003

The Hunger Artist

the man in the box There was a man hanging in a plexiglass box over the Thames in London when I was there last month.  A man who was starving himself.

David Blaine's recent spectacle didn't get a lot of attention here in the States, so you may not have heard about it, though the completion of his 44 day fast was covered by NPR yesterday morning.  But it captured the imagination of just about everyone in the UK, and was one of the most common topics of conversation I had with people during our two week vacation.  The fact that Blaine is an American probably had something to do with this, but even so, the progress of his fast was covered regularly and extensively by all the news outlets.  Reports of the analysis of his urine (done by independent labs, with the strictest security), and what it meant about his medical condition was standard fare in the papers, discussion with leading doctors about the dangers he faced the longer he fasted was a the subject of morning programs on the television.  Everyone speculated about whether he was somehow cheating, how long he could last, what it meant.

I don't know where Blaine got the idea for his fast.  But Franz Kafka wrote a short-story titled "A Hunger Artist" which seems to be a template for what Blaine did.  In it, the Hunger Artist would perform for 40 days to the increasing interest and agitation of the crowds, his manager selling tickets to those who wished to view the performance.  If Blaine didn't know about this story, he should have.

So, the question is, is it art?  It was a performance, certainly, and I suppose that in one sense this means it was art.  It was an interesting conceptual piece, a mechanism for grabbing the attention and imagination of an entire nation, so that is a kind of art.  (Remember, I considered my "Paint the Moon" project of two years ago to be a piece of conceptual/performance art with the same critieria.)  But in one way I don't want it to be art.  Blaine lost almost one-third of his body mass during his fast, and may well have caused permanent damage to his heart and kidneys.  Would that then mean that any kind of public mutilation could be considered art?  Certainly some people would pay to come and see it.  People already have, actually, since this sort of 'performance' has already been done in some venues.  So, how far do we take this?  Blaine (intentionally or not) staged a real version of a Kafka short story.  Could someone else stage a real version of that scene in a recent Hannibal Lecter movie where one character dines on the brain of another, while that other person is still alive?  How about staging a real version of Salvador Dali's 1936 painting "Autumnal Cannibalism" in which two figures are eating one another?  Would that be art?

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