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Writings of Clement Greenberg, the art critic and adjective

The Collected Essays and Criticism of Clement Greenberg, edited by John O'Brien. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Vol. 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, 312 pp. $27.50. Vol. 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, 296 pp. $27.50. Clement Greenberg has had the misfortune to become an adjective in his own time. Like Malthus and Darwin, the complex and contradictory shape of Greenberg's ideas has been obscured beneath an ill-fitting generalization.

In contemporary thought, the word ``Greenbergian'' coalesces several philosophical notions and historical events. It asserts that the inalienable qualities of an art medium are precisely those that are most important. Historically, painting has shared subject matter and narrative with literature. In Greenbergian aesthetics, it is exactly these items that must be jettisoned.

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What remains is that which is unique to painting: flatness, the shape of the canvas, and paint as pure optical sensation. Purity, Greenberg argued, ensured quality. The result of Greenbergian aesthetics is much more familiar than the theory: The worldwide clout of American abstract painting, beginning with Abstract Expressionism, owes much to him.

Modern music has not had a Clement Greenberg, one reason the orchestral repertoire still dwells so insistently on the 19th century. But abstract art is no longer gallery art; far fewer people now say that their children could do just as good a job. Abstract art is common and it is enjoyed. Color and form decorate offices, motels, theaters - and our homes.

The problem with Greenberg, the adjective, is that Greenberg, the critic, has had much more to say. The problem with Greenberg, the critic, is that he has cooperated in the creation of Greenberg, the adjective. In ``Art and Culture'' (1961), Greenberg notoriously revised several of his major essays. ``I see no reason,'' he wrote, ``why all the haste and waste involved in my self-education should be preserved in a book.'' The critics cried foul, suspecting that Greenberg was trying to grant himself undue prescience.

With the first collection of his unrevised writing, it is time to ask just how Greenbergian Clement Greenberg has been. The collected essays revive and reveal aspects of his thought that are not so easily streamlined.

The collected essays underscore Greenberg's beginnings in literary criticism. He reviewed Randall Jarrell, Stephen Spender, Marianne Moore, and all those little magazines. He was as interested in cultural politics as Lionel Trilling or Dwight Macdonald. ``Avant-Garde and Kitsch,'' originally published in the Partisan Review (1939), asked how the same civilization could produce T.S. Eliot and Tin Pan Alley.

Greenberg's essays prickle with opinion: Winslow Homer ``was small, dapper, reserved, and dull''; Georgia O'Keeffe ``is making pseudo-modern tinted photographs.'' An avenging critic, he seared any perceived breach of faith in High Art with his pen.

As a target in the current postmodern purge, Greenberg may now become as scholastic as Aquinas. It is important to remember that he wrote many of these essays for an educated lay audience, not for future scholars. As preserved in these volumes, his enviable compression, wide-ranging interests, wit, and even his malice will not age.

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