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Why a Painting Is Like a Pizza: A Guide to…
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Why a Painting Is Like a Pizza: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying…

by Nancy G. Heller

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This book is intended to introduce the outsider to 'modern' art, in this context meaning avant garde art after 1900. It left me vaguely dissatisfied, but still it's a helpful introduction. The pizza metaphor didn't work too well for me: if I received a pizza with "vivid red and green peppers, glossy black olives, translucent bits of onion, light brown mushrooms slices", I'd be horrified. I will concede that pizza components can be more or less aesthetically arranged, but there is no arrangement that could make those ingredients appealing to me. And if I was sharing a pizza with someone who likes "garbage" pizzas, I'd want those ingredients all on their side, no matter how it looks. Pizzas are primarily for eating. Of course, I'm extremely literal-minded, which may be my problem with the entire subject.

Heller's take on the matter is that art is whatever people choose to call art, and one is entitled to like or dislike whatever one chooses. I can have no quarrel with that. In that case, Heller's quotation of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary: "Art. This word has no definition" is apt. (I do not mean to imply that this is a problem, not being one for Platonic ideals.) This is not, of course, a universal opinion among art critics, including those championing modern art. I don't sympathize too much with Heller's view of modern artists as persecuted: they can be quite nasty and intolerant in turn. As long as one does not try to separate art into fine art versus graphic art versus design, I will say that many abstract works are visually pleasing. I really like the stripe paintings in figure 18 & 19, but I don't see that they are morally different from wallpaper. And I don't see how Morris Lewis's painting (figure 23) is made intriguing by drip marks.

Heller deals with questions about the difficulty of making modern art, which doesn't bother me, but is apparently of great concern to some people. I didn't like Jackson Pollack's work before I knew he poured on the paint, and I like it neither more nor less for knowing that. Even something that looks easy to do may require a good eye - I can appreciate a certain friend's ability to choose colors and patterns, and I freely admit that I couldn't do the same, even though I have mastered getting dressed.

I really appreciate Heller's efforts, but for the most part, I'm not persuaded that most of these pieces are interesting or would repay the effort that she urges us to put into them. I once saw an Ad Reinhart exhibit at the Guggenheim. Heller et al. are quite right: his black paintings are in fact made up of separate squares. I examined the paintings carefully and read analyses about him, (mostly they pointed out that the black paintings are made up of separate squares), but I still don't know why I should care that they are. I am tired of the phrase: "the artist forces the viewer ... ". This completely underestimates my strength of character.

Despite my obvious lack of enthusiasm for the topic, this is good choice for the baffled: well written, carefully and logically explained. Heller apparently put a great deal of effort into choosing good reproductions. She also included cartoons and other illustrations and quotes that illuminate her points and add to the liveliness and charm of the book. So I have to say that in that sense, she did a good job and gave me what I was looking for. I would just recommend that the reader keep in mind that all art docents don't take as broadminded a view as Heller: some consider art to be a compulsory cult, some consider it as existing to challenge social values (especially of the bourgeousie) and wouldn't consider being visually interesting or beautiful as a legitimate goal. Part of my dissatisfaction is the suspicion that some of these other agendas lurk unacknowledged in Heller's thinking. I also found Phillip Yenawine's How to Look At Modern Art interesting, if not quite as good as this. My favorite book on the subject remains Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word. ( )
  juglicerr | Jun 17, 2007 |
Camille Paglia, University Professor and Professor of Humanities, University of the Art : Nearly a century after the Armory Show, avant-garde art remains misunderstood by mainstream America. In a practical, industrious country where the fine arts have never been deeply rooted, abstract and conceptual artists are still too often dismissed as silly, untalented, or immoral, with art galleries portrayed as snobbish and greedy. This worsening cultural crisis affects private and public funding, discourages promising new voices, and threatens America's creative future. Nancy G. Heller's wonderful book arrives in the nick of time. Destined to be a classic of public education, it is lucid, engaging, and ingenious, leading the reader through the difficulties and strategies of avant-garde art. Intended for the general audience, the book is also must reading for teachers throughout the humanities, which have become distracted by jargon and ideology. Heller is an inspiring role model for university scholars, who must recover and renew their central mission of teaching.

Bay Hallowell, Coordinator of Special Projects, Youth, and Family Programs, Philadelphia Museum of Art : This delightful, down-to-earth guide demystifies the act of looking at modern and contemporary art with clarity and humor, drawing upon a diverse and wide-ranging array of artworks, which are abundantly reproduced. It will definitely appeal to novice viewers perplexed by the enigmas of earthworks and the splatters, scrapes, and splashes of non-traditional art, and it just may convince a few skeptics to look for beauty in unexpected places. Why a Painting is Like a Pizza is an ideal book for beginners because Nancy Heller leads us through the basics of analyzing the elements of any work of art while sharing tales of her own, often humorous, peregrinations to museums and galleries. She is an ideal companion---full of fun, facts, genuine enthusiasm, and a healthy respect for viewers abilities and their personal responses.

Susan S. Badder, Curator of Education, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. : Nancy Heller has wrought a minor miracle. She has written a book about art that is of interest to both the layperson and the professional. Why a Painting Is Like a Pizza is informative and highly entertaining. By exploring the context within which art is made and exhibited, and by probing the criteria for evaluating it, Heller has constructed a useful framework for looking at art meaningfully. Without belittling artists and their work, she has demystified the artistic process. Through her pragmatic, everyday analogies she helps us see that all art is an act of communication and that the visitor's response--whatever it might be--is valid.

Linda Andre, Program Specialist for Teacher Services, The Sylvia Friedberg Nachlas Endowed Chair in Museum Education, Department of Education & Interpretation, The Baltimore Museum of Art : Reading Why a Painting is Like a Pizza is like having a personal guide at your side as you make your way through unfamiliar territory. We feel that we are in a gallery, engaged in an engrossing conversation with somebody who knows a great deal about modern art, but does not pretend to know all the answers, or even believe that answers are always available. While we hear Nancy Heller's highly intelligent and often very witty voice throughout the entire book, we also hear our own, for the author seems to know what we are thinking, wondering, and even resisting before we have been able to put our questions and doubts into words.

A. Richard Turner, author of "Inventing Leonardo" : So much writing on modern art is dessicated intellectualism, jargon laden, and marinated in theory. Here, instead, we have a simple and clear presentation, truly accessible to students, general readers, and museum beginners.

Review
Heller realizes that a painting is not like a pizza. She also knows, however, that this and the other homely analogies that pepper her introduction to modern art are entirely appropriate for an audience of curious and suspicious neophytes venturing into difficult terrain. . . . The emphasis on difficult and controversial works, which are compared to more traditional works, to each other, and to common things, introduces various ways of interpreting and evaluating art in the context of specific examples. . . . [S]hort, pithy, and intelligent.

Book Description

The first time she made a pizza from scratch, art historian Nancy Heller made the observation that led her to write this entertaining guide to contemporary art. Comparing modern art not only to pizzas but also to traditional and children's art, Heller shows us how we can refine analytical tools we already possess to understand and enjoy even the most unfamiliar paintings and sculptures.

How is a painting like a pizza? Both depend on visual balance for much of their overall appeal and, though both can be judged by a set of established standards, pizzas and paintings must ultimately be evaluated in terms of individual taste. By using such commonsense examples and making unexpected connections, this book helps even the most skeptical viewers feel comfortable around contemporary art and see aspects of it they would otherwise miss. Heller discusses how nontraditional works of art are made--and thus how to talk about their composition and formal elements. She also considers why such art is made and what it "means."

At the same time, Heller reassures those of us who have felt uncomfortable around avant-garde art that we don't have to like all--or even any--of it. Yet, if we can relax, we can use the aesthetic awareness developed in everyday life to analyze almost any painting, sculpture, or installation. Heller also gives concise answers to the eight questions she is most frequently asked about contemporary art--from how to tell when an abstract painting is right side up to which works of art belong in a museum.

This book is for anyone who agrees with art critic Clement Greenberg that "All profoundly original art looks ugly at first." It's also for anyone who disagrees. It is for anyone who wants to get more out of a museum or gallery visit and would like to be able to say something more than just "yes" or "no" when asked if they like an artist's work.
  anamartins | May 2, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691090521, Paperback)

The first time she made a pizza from scratch, art historian Nancy Heller made the observation that led her to write this entertaining guide to contemporary art. Comparing modern art not only to pizzas but also to traditional and children's art, Heller shows us how we can refine analytical tools we already possess to understand and enjoy even the most unfamiliar paintings and sculptures.

How is a painting like a pizza? Both depend on visual balance for much of their overall appeal and, though both can be judged by a set of established standards, pizzas and paintings must ultimately be evaluated in terms of individual taste. By using such commonsense examples and making unexpected connections, this book helps even the most skeptical viewers feel comfortable around contemporary art and see aspects of it they would otherwise miss. Heller discusses how nontraditional works of art are made--and thus how to talk about their composition and formal elements. She also considers why such art is made and what it "means."

At the same time, Heller reassures those of us who have felt uncomfortable around avant-garde art that we don't have to like all--or even any--of it. Yet, if we can relax, we can use the aesthetic awareness developed in everyday life to analyze almost any painting, sculpture, or installation. Heller also gives concise answers to the eight questions she is most frequently asked about contemporary art--from how to tell when an abstract painting is right side up to which works of art belong in a museum.

This book is for anyone who agrees with art critic Clement Greenberg that "All profoundly original art looks ugly at first." It's also for anyone who disagrees. It is for anyone who wants to get more out of a museum or gallery visit and would like to be able to say something more than just "yes" or "no" when asked if they like an artist's work.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:03 -0400)

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