Denis Dutton, who has died at the comparatively early age of 66, will be sadly missed by all who knew him, for to know him was immediately to form a strong and lasting affection for him. Dutton had a profound and beneficial effect on political and cultural debate in the entire English-speaking world.
Born in California, where he studied, he was for many years a professor of the philosophy of art at Canterbury University at Christchurch, in New Zealand. His intellectual curiosity and energy were formidable. He was the editor of the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature, from whose editorial seat he insisted, against the current of the times, that accessibility was not the opposite of scholarship or profundity but rather the sine qua non of work of genuine worth. Under his editorship, the journal ran a widely noted annual bad-writing award, in which pretentious academic gobbledygook was held up to the public ridicule that it so richly deserved. The examples that won (the field was extensive, needless to say) were hilarious and auto-satirizing; but though no commentary was necessary, Dutton’s remarks were exemplary for their concision, accuracy, and deadliness. He skewered some of the most celebrated charlatans of our time. Dutton also wrote one book, The Art Instinct, possibly the only treatise by someone with a Darwinian approach to philosophy that a non-Darwinian can read with pleasure and instruction.
But it was for founding and editing the influential website Arts and Letters Daily that Dutton will perhaps be best remembered. Arts and Letters Daily was not so much a digest of the English-language press of the world as a compendium of articles taken from it that seemed to Dutton to be of intellectual interest and worthy of an intelligent person’s attention. Many articles that first appeared in City Journal found a second life on Arts and Letters Daily.
A major achievement of the website was revealing to the world of the bien-pensant liberal that there existed a realm of conservative thought containing, not bigotry or morally corrupt apologias for the rich, afraid for their fortunes, but serious reflections upon the human condition. After Arts and Letters Daily, it became more difficult to dismiss conservatism with crude ad hominem jibes. In that sense, like several new media outlets, it has rendered service to those on the left as well as on the right.
The agenda of the English-language press, upon which the sun never sets, was driven to a startling degree by Arts and Letters Daily, produced in Christchurch. I once published an article in an excellent cultural journal of limited circulation about a subject of interest to few of my compatriots. I had forgotten about it; but suddenly, a frenzy of interest erupted in it. In the space of a few hours, at least 20 radio stations contacted me, wanting to talk about the article. I found this utterly mysterious until I discovered that Arts and Letters Daily had posted it shortly before.
A man, however, is not to be measured wholly by the quality of his achievements. I wish only that I were able to turn as fine a compliment of Denis Dutton as Doctor Johnson turned of Sir Joshua Reynolds: that he was the most invulnerable man that he knew, for if he should quarrel with him, he should find the most difficulty how to abuse him. Denis Dutton was of that ilk.