On the banks of the fast-flowing Rhône, opposite the beautiful Tête d’Or park in Lyon’s 6th district, the magnificent Museum of Contemporary Art, nicknamed the MAC, is a magnet of the avant-garde.

Created in 1984, the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (Museum of Contemporary Art Lyon) moved to the Cité Internationale in December 1995 to a building specially designed by Renzo Piano. The museum boasts three floors of exhibition space and a total surface area of 2,800 m2.

Thanks to its fully modular interior, the exhibition space can be transformed with each new artistic project. A new museum reopens for each exhibition!


“Modern” and “contemporary”

In everyday language, the terms “modern” and “contemporary” are often used interchangeably. In the context of art, however, they designate two distinct moments in art history. There are specific definitions for both terms, and these definitions will help us to establish an understanding of the images and themes that emerge in both styles of art.

  • What Is Modern Art?

“Modern art” dates from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries and refers to work that was entirely different from that which preceded it. This art broke with convention, dealt with new subject matter, focused on conceptual concerns, and changed the position of the artist within society. Modernism began as a trend of thought that emphasized the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology, and practical experimentation. Thus, in its essence it is both progressive and optimistic. The movement was initially an ideological reaction to the dehumanizing effects of late-nineteenth-century industrialization. Other world events further inspired the movement, including World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945); huge improvements in industry and technology as compared to the nineteenth century; the rise in the power and influence of international corporations; increasing interconnectedness across the globe in the form of cultural exchanges, transportation, and communication; the spread of popular culture from Europe and North America elsewhere; and the “Westernization” of many formerly traditional societies. Modern art reflects a tendency toward abstract and nonrepresentational depictions of the world. Many styles of art developed during the modern period, including impressionism, fauvism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism, pop art, op art, art nouveau, and art deco.

  • What Is Contemporary Art?

The term “contemporary art” is generally regarded as referring to work made between 1970 and the present. It also implies art that is made by living artists, but essentially contemporary art is seen as something that has never been done before. There is no unifying ideology in contemporary art, and there are no schools, periods, or styles as are associated with modern art. However, certain trends have emerged in contemporary works. Contemporary art emphasizes a rejection of the commercialization of the art world, but it is often connected to the contemporary consumer-driven society. Contemporary art often reflects a strong social consciousness, including themes such as feminism, multiculturalism, globalization, bioengineering, and AIDS awareness. It incorporates the widespread use of a variety of technology-based media and the mixture of both photography and Contemporary Art vs. Modern Art

8language in works. Contemporary art blurs the distinctions between painting and sculpture through the use of everyday objects and other nontraditional media in the final product. In addition, contemporary art includes large-scale installations that emphasize the importance of an architectural context for art. Contemporary art often makes a connection to the future, but it parallels many developments in contemporary society. Contemporary art works to explode our understanding and perception of art. This kind of art challenges, defies, and excites; it crosses boundaries and asks us to question the meanings of “high” and “low” art. Contemporary art breeds controversy and confronts the viewer with challenging questions. This art forces a relationship to form among the art, the artist, and the viewer. From this relationship, works of art gain new meaning. Contemporary art unites new technologies and materials with traditional styles and processes. The study of contemporary art can help people think in new directions by focusing on the process of looking at and analyzing art, and contemporary artists hope that viewers can translate these skills into their everyday lives.


[Article for discussion]

"Getting" Contemporary Art

It's ironic that many people say they don't "get" contemporary art because, unlike Egyptian tomb painting or Greek sculpture, art made since 1960 reflects our own recent past. It speaks to the dramatic social, political and technological changes of the last 50 years, and it questions many of society's values and assumptions—a tendency of postmodernism, a concept sometimes used to describe contemporary art. What makes today's art especially challenging is that, like the world around us, it has become more diverse and cannot be easily defined through a list of visual characteristics, artistic themes or cultural concerns.
Minimalism and Pop Art, two major art movements of the early 1960s, offer clues to the different directions of art in the late 20th and 21st century. Both rejected established expectations about art's aesthetic qualities and need for originality. Minimalist objects are spare geometric forms, often made from industrial processes and materials, which lack surface details, expressive markings, and any discernible meaning. Pop Art took its subject matter from low-brow sources like comic books and advertising. Like Minimalism, its use of commercial techniques eliminated emotional content implied by the artist's individual approach, something that had been important to the previous generation of modern painters. The result was that both movements effectively blurred the line distinguishing fine art from more ordinary aspects of life, and forced us to reconsider art's place and purpose in the world.

Shifting Strategies

Minimalism and Pop Art paved the way for later artists to explore questions about the conceptual nature of art, its form, its production, and its ability to communicate in different ways. In the late 1960s and 1970s, these ideas led to a "dematerialization of art," when artists turned away from painting and sculpture to experiment with new formats including photography, film and video, performance art, large-scale installations and earth works. Although some critics of the time foretold "the death of painting," art today encompasses a broad range of traditional and experimental media, including works that rely on Internet technology and other scientific innovations.
Contemporary artists continue to use a varied vocabulary of abstract and representational forms to convey their ideas. It is important to remember that the art of our time did not develop in a vacuum; rather, it reflects the social and political concerns of its cultural context. For example, artists like Judy Chicago, who were inspired by the feminist movement of the early 1970s, embraced imagery and art forms that had historical connections to women.
In the 1980s, artists appropriated the style and methods of mass media advertising to investigate issues of cultural authority and identity politics. More recently, artists like Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., and Richard Serra, who was loosely associated with Minimalism in the 1960s, have adapted characteristics of Minimalist art to create new abstract sculptures that encourage more personal interaction and emotional response among viewers.
These shifting strategies to engage the viewer show how contemporary art's significance exists beyond the object itself. Its meaning develops from cultural discourse, interpretation and a range of individual understandings, in addition to the formal and conceptual problems that first motivated the artist. In this way, the art of our times may serve as a catalyst for an on-going process of open discussion and intellectual inquiry about the world today.