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Irving Penn, Twitter, and the Everydayness of Life

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I'm sure I'll be accused of having Twitter on the brain, but listening to and reading the obituaries for Irving Penn put me in mind of that 140-character cultural and media phenomenon.

Huh? Well, a common thread in these celebrations of the master is Penn's impatience with the extraneous, what Andy Grundberg in his front-page New York Times story called his "compositional clarity and economy." The story goes on to note that Penn was able to "find beauty in the disdained, overlooked or overripe... in an otherwise pristine still life of food, he included a house fly."

This search for truth and beauty in the quotidian details of life goes way back, even to Vermeer and his light-infused celebrations of domesticity. (They're available for your viewing pleasure at the Metropolitan Museum until the end of November.) Impressionist still life paintings found a kind of transcendent spirituality in the humble fruits, vegetables and breads of existence. Their paintings are beloved because they say that this moment, this object, this light coming through the window all matter.

This ability to find an epiphany in the everyday has a parallel literary life, from Dickens to Twain to contemporary figures like Raymond Carver and the brand-new phenom Wells Tower.

So let's circle back to Twitter and see how it fits into this contextual (and conceptual) framework. Twitter-phobes (or more contemporarily, Twitphobes) complain that the platform fuels narcissism and solipsism. "Do I really care if so-and-so picked up the kids or had to wait too long for a latte at Starbucks" is the familiar gripe.

Maybe we do. Maybe we should. Maybe we can.

Artists of the everyday found their work scorned by those who thought "art" needed to address great and grand subjects. Today, our cultural norms are in sync with the everyday as a subject for art -- often deployed for satiric or ironic intent, in fact -- while art that takes on ostensibly important material is woefully out of fashion and favor.

But Penn and all the other characters I've mentioned found a kind of quiet and compressed beauty in humble movements through time and space. Twitter's stripped-down essentialism shares some of the DNA of the observational eye behind Penn's work. Or Raymond Carver's stories. It's a place for someone to note the significance of the house-fly in the still life.

Used right, Twitter can allow for a kind of expressive condensation that can document a sacred ordinariness, and share it at the same time. I won't sink into pretension and argue that it is an art form, but I will say that it's far more than an omnium-gatherum of detritus, as its mocking gallery insists it is.

Around the Web

Parting Glance: Irving Penn - Lens Blog - NYTimes.com