OPEN UNIVERSITY FEBRUARY 23, 2007
by Richard Stern
I used to think that Kafka's wonderful story, "Hunger Artist," revealed the tragic crushing of high art by the creeping glacier of entertainment. After all, its poor artist was displaced from his solo stage in the center of town to a sideshow in the circus where, finally, unwatched by anyone, he starved not to perfection but miserable death.
Now, following the apotheosis of the one-time Texas beauty turned ludicrous fortune-hunter and, finally, burned-out addict, Anna Nicole Smith (her 'true' name a more humble Texas monicker), I read "Hunger Artist" in a new way. The need of a country like the post-Marshall Plan United States for tragi-farce is enormous. To confront nothing but the savagery, corruption, selfishness, vulgarity, or sheer murderousness of so many of our greatest public and private enterprises would plunge most of us into stupefaction or neurotic collapse. Somehow or other, when confrontation with Middle Eastern bloodiness, African starvation, disease and organized murder, or the American chasm between haves and have-nots becomes too much to take, our wonderful media throw up on the shore of the national consciousness an Anna Nicole Smith, a Britney Spears, an Elian Gonzales, and around each of these decipher an intrigue peopled by the usually invisible dramatis personae who make up most of our population. Which of us could have come up with Anna's mother Virgie, the plump, peroxided grieving mater dolorosa who hadn't seen her addled daughter in ten years, the parade of Anna's pimps and lovers, the Kentucky photographer-reporter, the worshipful parasite-lawyer, the vasectomied Carolina land baron? Who could have conjured up the ex-Bronx-born cabbie turned lawyer, turned judge, spewing the caramelized gunk of his half-baked sentimentality and illiteracy over his courtroom as if touched with the divinity of a mad Narcissus? How wonderful that millions and millions of us could convert revulsion into a sort of laughter as these marvelous humans quarreled about the final resting place of the "remains" of the poor Texas floozie who in death achieved the celebrity she'd so long pursued? We didn't need to think about 18-year-old boys learning how to walk with their new mechanical legs in hospital room-battlegrounds (roaches fighting rats), didn't need to see five-year-old Iraqi children bleeding to death in their parents' arms, didn't have to contemplate American sages extrapolating medieval emptiness from the latest observation of the 900 men and women campaigning for the American presidency. We were, at least for a few hours, saved. You would have understood, Franz, nicht wahr?