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Why a Painting Is Like a Pizza: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Modern Art [Paperback]

by Nancy G. Heller
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 1, 2002 0691090521 978-0691090528

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.

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Editorial Reviews


"This book gives real pleasure and offers a genuine learning experience. Right from the beginning, the author engages the reader with the thought that something that seems so incomprehensible to so many (abstract art) can be understood in the same terms as something as concrete, unthreatening, and comprehensible as a pizza."--Raymond Erickson, editor of Schubert's Vienna

"Nancy G. Heller is a godsend for the average Joe who wants to understand modern art. . . . Heller's funny, accessible book is filled with terrific color pictures for us to look at and get an idea about our individual aesthetic preferences. . . . There's no dour intellectual jargon and gobbleygook here, just plain talk for plain folks who dig art and want to know why."--Gino Vivinetto, St Petersburg Times

"Heller organizes a large body of material coherently. She clearly explains concepts that might otherwise seem novel or complex. She allows space for the critics of the avant-garde. . . . Taken as a whole, Heller's analysis is directed more to creating openness to avant-garde art than to an appreciation or understanding of it. She is not a proselytizer."--Gresham Riley, Philadelphia Inquirer

"In this evocatively titled book, Heller simplifies the complexities of modern avant-garde art, making it palatable and accessible to an uninformed audience. . . . [H]er argument will offer baffled museum and gallery visitors a way to appreciate otherwise difficult work."--
Library Journal

"Heller wants to persuade the bewildered that the emperor of contemporary art does in fact have clothes--confusing and abstract clothes, but clothes nonetheless. She realizes that people dislike contemporary art because it makes them feel stupid, so she shies away from the conceptual in favor of formal aspects that everyone can appreciate . . . with jargon-free charm."--Alix Ohlin, The Wilson Quarterly

"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."--

From the Inside Flap

"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."--Camille Paglia, University Professor and Professor of Humanities, University of the 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."--Bay Hallowell, Coordinator of Special Projects, Youth, and Family Programs, Philadelphia Museum of Art

"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."--Susan S. Badder, Curator of Education, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

"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. "--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

"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."--A. Richard Turner, author of Inventing Leonardo

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (November 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691090521
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691090528
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #218,411 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A short, readable guide to modern art March 28, 2003
If you enjoy looking at modern art, have trouble understanding what you are seeing, and want a simple discussion to help your understanding, then this book is for you. The book does not bog down in explaining the various artistic movements. Rather, it gives discussions that help you appreciate diverse art forms, including "stripe" paintings, monochrome paintings, "drip" paintings, and a variety of sculpture (including boxes, fluorescent lights, and "everyday" objects). Ms. Heller often acknoweledges the criticism that these art forms receive, but explains why a child couldn't really do it, and what makes it art. Ms. Heller even devotes a chapter to "commonsense answers" to "often asked questions" about modern art. The reproductions and photos in the book are well done and seem true to color. And, not to be underestimated, the book is short (under 200 pages, but with many photos), readable, and easy to understand without talking down to the readers. After reading the book, you may still not like a painting or sculpture, but you will certainly have a better appreciation for it. I actually take this book to the museum and refer to it, even though I am reading more in-depth books on modern art. I rarely give five-star reviews, but I cannot say enough good things about this book.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern Art: Finally, an English translation June 30, 2003
So much of what I have read about modern art goes in one ear and out the other. I think this is because writers feel obligated to impart a certain body of knowledge to the reader. Nancy Heller, however, starts with the questions people have about modern art and then proceeds to answer them. She even concludes the book with a chapter of answers to questions most asked about modern art.
If you are planning to read your first book about modern art, this is the one. If you are planning to read your very LAST book about modern art, this too is the one.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Good Introduction To Modernism and Postmodernism September 12, 2003
This book is engagingly written, a "quick read" and, surprisingly for art history or criticism, has some great quotes from artists in it which give another insight into the art as well. The author has a passion for modern art, and the skill to make her passion understood. Highly recommended. Also has some lovely color reproductions to contemplate.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good choice for those skeptical about 'modern' art September 25, 2006
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.
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