March-April 2007

Harry Chapin:
The Hunger Artist

By Ross Altman

Franz Kafka’s darkest fantasy it turns out was no fantasy at all. His painful allegorical self-portrait, The Hunger Artist, one who starves himself for the amusement of onlookers, is in fact based on real freak show circus performers of the time in Prague who offered themselves up as masochistic subjects for the crowd of sadists who paid to watch them suffer.

The late singer-songwriter Harry Chapin was a vastly different kind of hunger artist—one who used his music and the stage that it commanded to shine a spotlight on the plight of the world’s hungry—including those in the United States—who lived and died far from the camera’s eye, hidden in the shadows of our consciousness so as not to disturb our peace of mind. Harry Chapin, who died tragically in a head-on collision with a flatbed truck on July 16, 1981, did what great artists always do—he disturbed the peace and almost single-handedly awakened the moral conscience of America’s “affluent majority,


All Columns by Ross Altman