George Maciunas – the World Famous Anti-Artist


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George Maciunas (Jurgis Mačiūnas) is an important figure in Lithuanian and world art history. He founded the artistic movement Fluxus [Lat. volatile, changing], which promotes  freedom and the beauty of surprise. Fluxus is often called an anti-art movement because, unlike traditional works of art based on moderation and harmony, it gives a leading role to chance. Fluxus can turn any everyday object into a work of art. Thus, Maciunas was the first anti-artist from Lithuania to gain world-wide fame.

Maciunas was a Lithuanian emigrant. He was born in 1931 in Kaunas, but in 1944, at the end of World War II, he fled to Germany with his parents to avoid Soviet persecution. He graduated from the gymnasium there, and went to the United States in 1948, where he received an excellent classical artistic education: he studied art history, graphics, architecture, and even musicology. However, his further activities in the art world went against everything associated with traditional art.

Fluxus was founded in 1962 and has its origins in the European avant-garde artists, who considered the source of creativity to be the subconscious, dreams, and fantasies rather than the mind. In 1963 Maciunas wrote the Fluxus Manifesto – a text in which he defined what this movement is and what it seeks. The essence of Fluxus, according to Maciunas, is to cleanse the world from artificial art, which says nothing real either about the world or humanity.

However, it is quite hard to clearly define what Fluxus is. It is an experiment, a movement that rejects the norms and traditions of fine art. Fluxus is playful, and so is sometimes thought to be a joke. When making Fluxus art, the artists often use everyday objects. The goal of the artist is to show an ordinary thing in a new way, to surprise. Installations that use elements of lighting, painting or sculpture to unrecognizably change ordinary objects or places,  such as films and performances – one-time events performed in front of an audience – are the most popular. Unlike traditional art, which leaves the viewers in the role of observers, Fluxus also seeks to engage them in the game, because anyone can be a creator. But in spite of the playfulness, Fluxus works often criticise the stagnant norms of the art and human worlds, and of consumer society.

It is interesting that Maciunas, who promotes creative freedom, was a strict teacher to other Fluxus creators. As a pioneer of the movement, he felt he had the authority to decide whether a work of art belonged to the Fluxus movement or not. Therefore, it is often said that Fluxus came to an end when Maciunas died of cancer in 1978. Of course, Fluxus did not disappear without a trace – the movement has inspired many of today’s artists around the world.

It was hard for news about events in the art world to reach Soviet-occupied Lithuania, so there wasn’t much information about Maciunas and Fluxus. Only after the country regained its independence in the 1990s the Lithuanian artists launched the first Fluxus campaigns. The Fluxus Cabinet was opened at the Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius in 1997, and in 2007 Vilnius Municipality acquired the second largest collection of Fluxus works in the world – the largest one is kept in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York.

Although Fluxus sought to be anti-art, the movement is now seen as an important part of art history, and Fluxus art works have moved from the streets and private spaces to the world’s largest galleries. In other words, the jokes turned into serious works of art.