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Denis Dutton

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Denis Dutton
Denis Dutton at a February 2010 TED Conference in Long Beach, California
Denis Dutton at a February 2010 TED Conference in Long Beach, California
BornDenis Laurence Dutton
(1944-02-09)9 February 1944
Los Angeles, California, United States
Died28 December 2010(2010-12-28) (aged 66)
Christchurch, New Zealand
OccupationAcademic, internet entrepreneur, and media commentator
NationalityAmerican and New Zealander
EducationUniversity of California, Santa Barbara (B.A. 1966, PhD 1975)
SubjectsArt, evolution, and media
Notable worksArts & Letters Daily
Margit Stoll Dutton
(m. 1969)

Denis Laurence Dutton (9 February 1944 – 28 December 2010)[1] was an American philosopher of art, web entrepreneur, and media activist. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was also a co-founder and co-editor of the websites Arts & Letters Daily, ClimateDebateDaily.com, and cybereditions.com.[2]

Life and career


Denis Dutton was born in Los Angeles, California, United States, on 9 February 1944, as the second of four children of William and Thelma Dutton,[3] who were booksellers and founded what became Dutton's Books, a chain of independent bookstores.[1] He grew up in North Hollywood, graduated from North Hollywood High School,[3] and was educated at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1966 and his PhD in philosophy in 1975.[1] Between taking these degrees, he went to India with the Peace Corps and learned to play sitar.[1] Dutton taught at several American universities, including the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan–Dearborn, before emigrating to New Zealand.

Dutton started teaching at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, in 1984.[1] From 2008 to 2010, he was the Head of the Philosophy school in an unofficial capacity and acted briefly as Head of Humanities. At its December 2010 graduation ceremony, the University of Canterbury awarded Dutton a research medal for his work.[4]

He was a member of the editorial board for The Rutherford Journal.[5]

On 28 December 2010, Dutton died from cancer.[6][7]

Arts & Letters Daily


Dutton was best known for the web aggregation site Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998 and which secured him a place among "the most influential media personalities in the world".[8] The site, described as "the first and foremost aggregator of well-written and well-argued book reviews, essays, and other articles in the realm of ideas",[9] features links to articles across the web about literature, art, science, and politics, for which Dutton wrote pithy teasers.[1] In recognition of Arts & Letters Daily, Steven Pinker called Dutton a visionary for recognizing that a website "could be a forum for cutting-edge ideas, not just a way to sell things or entertain the bored".[3]



Dutton served as executive director of Cybereditions, a print on demand publishing company he founded in 2000[10] which specializes in new and out-of-print copyright works, mostly of a scholarly nature. The editorial board of the company has included other academics such as Frederick Crews, Anthony Grafton and Marjorie Perloff.[11]



Dutton wrote on authenticity in art and distinguished between nominal authenticity, in which a work of art is correctly attributed to its author rather than being a forgery, and expressive authenticity, where a work is a true expression of an individual's or a society's values and beliefs.[12]

In his book The Art Instinct (2010)[13] Dutton opposes the view that art appreciation is culturally learned, claiming instead that art appreciation stems from evolutionary adaptions made during the Pleistocene.[14] He set out abbreviated versions of his theory in a 2009 Google Talk lecture[15] and a 2010 TED talk.[16]

Dutton also argued that progress in the arts and sciences had declined, especially since around 1800.[17]

Criticism of academic prose


As editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, Dutton ran the Bad Writing Contest, which aimed to "expose 'pretentious, swaggering gibberish' passed off as scholarship at leading universities".[3] In 1995, the contest was won by Homi K. Bhabha and Fredric Jameson.[18] In 1998, the contest awarded first place to philosopher and University of California-Berkeley Professor Judith Butler, for a sentence which appeared in the journal diacritics.[19] Butler defended their work against the charges of academic pedantry and obscurantism in the pages of The New York Times.[20] Dutton then ended the contest.

The Bad Writing Contest emerged in an intellectual climate dominated by fallout from the Sokal affair,[21][22] in which the alleged opaqueness and obscurity of postmodern writing came in for criticism: Edward Said, for instance, deplored "diminishment and incoherence" in the writings of some of his colleagues and Martha Nussbaum condemned academic writing that was "ponderous and obscure".[23]

Politics and activism


Dutton supported "conservative ideas"[24] and was a member of the Libertarian Party for some years.[3]

Dutton was one of the founding members and first chair of the NZ Skeptics. In 2009, he stated that he believed that "climate change is still an open question".[25]

He was also a passionate supporter of public radio. In the early 1990s he founded the lobby group The New Zealand Friends of Public Broadcasting in response to proposals to devolve New Zealand's two non-commercial public radio stations.[26]

In 1995 he was appointed to the board of directors of Radio New Zealand, where he served for seven years.[27] After concluding his term as a director, Dr Dutton and Dr John Isles issued a report criticising Radio New Zealand for loss of neutrality in news and current affairs, failure to adhere to charter and opposed to contestable funding of broadcasting.[28]



Dutton's publications include:

  • Denis Laurence Dutton (1974). Art and anthropology: aspects of criticism and the social studies. University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • Denis Dutton (1983). The Forger's art: forgery and the philosophy of art. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04341-3.
  • Denis Dutton; Michael Krausz (1985). The Concept of creativity in science and art. M. Nijhoff. ISBN 90-247-3127-5.
  • Denis Dutton (2003). Jerrold Levinson (ed.). "Authenticity in Art". The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 7 January 2011. Retrieved 31 March 2011.
  • Charles A. Murray; Denis Dutton; Claire Fox (2008). In Praise of Elitism. Centre for Independent Studies, The. ISBN 978-1-86432-166-1.
  • Denis Dutton (2009). The art instinct: beauty, pleasure, & human evolution. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 978-0-19-953942-0.
  • Michael Krausz; Denis Dutton; Karen Bardsley (2009). The idea of creativity. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-17444-3.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Fox, Margalit (31 December 2010). "Denis Dutton, Philosopher, Dies at 66". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Ray Sawhill (3 November 2000). "The gleeful contrarian". Salon.com. Archived from the original on 7 March 2008. Retrieved 25 March 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d e Woo, Elaine (2 January 2011). "Denis Dutton dies at 66: Founder of Arts & Letters Daily website". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
  4. ^ Matthews, Philip (16 December 2010). "Renowned academic receives top honour". The Press. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
  5. ^ "Editorial board". The Rutherford Journal. Retrieved 19 December 2016.
  6. ^ "Professor, web entrepreneur Denis Dutton dies". The Press. 28 December 2010. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
  7. ^ "Arts author Denis Dutton dies aged 66". BBC News. 29 December 2010.
  8. ^ Grossman, Lev (13 June 2004). "Meet Joe Blog". Time. Archived from the original on 4 February 2013.
  9. ^ Eskin, Blake (28 December 2010). "Denis Dutton". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 8 February 2013.
  10. ^ Boynton, Robert S. (11 November 2000). "Hoping Web Success Strikes Twice". The New York Times. New York.
  11. ^ Riemer, Andrew (3 March 2001). "Reading between the dots". The Sydney Morning Herald. p. 8.
  12. ^ Denis Dutton (2003). Jerrold Levinson (ed.). "Authenticity in Art". The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 7 January 2011. Retrieved 31 March 2011.
  13. ^ Dutton, Denis (2010). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-1-60819-055-3.
  14. ^ Gottlieb, Anthony (1 February 2009). "The Descent of Taste". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 May 2010.
  15. ^ Denis Dutton (2009). Authors@Google: Denis Dutton. Mountain View, CA. Retrieved 27 February 2012 – via YouTube.
  16. ^ Dutton, Denis (Contributor) (February 2010). Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty. TED. Video on TED.com. Archived from the original on 11 February 2014. Retrieved 12 March 2012.
  17. ^ Dutton, Denis. "Of Human Accomplishment". Denisdutton.com. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 5 May 2011.
  18. ^ Dutton, Denis (1998). "The Bad Writing Contest: Press Releases, 1996–1998". DenisDutton.com. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 30 October 2010.
  19. ^ Dutton, Denis (5 February 1999). "Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 25 January 2011. Retrieved 30 October 2010.
  20. ^ Butler, Judith (20 March 1999). "A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 8 October 2011. Retrieved 30 October 2010.
  21. ^ Leo, John (13 March 1999). "Pomobabble rooted in ivy". The Washington Times. p. C1.
  22. ^ Kelly, Richard (8 April 1999). "Bad blood over bad writing: Critics say US academic language has become so convoluted that it is largely incomprehensible to the point where argument is becoming impossible". The Irish Times. p. 15.
  23. ^ Smith, Dinitia (27 February 1999). "When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing: Attacks on scholars include a barbed contest with 'prizes'". The New York Times. p. B9.
  24. ^ Colebatch, Hal G.P. (30 December 2010). "Vale Denis Dutton: A professor of philosophy who civilized the Internet". American Spectator. Archived from the original on 18 November 2011.
  25. ^ "And in this corner..." The Press. 2 January 2008.
  26. ^ "NZine: Public broadcasting – Not everyone is apathetic". 18 July 1998. Archived from the original on 25 November 2005. Retrieved 27 March 2008.
  27. ^ Marion Hobbs, MP (4 February 2002). "Board appointments for NZOA and RNZ". New Zealand Government. Retrieved 26 March 2008.
  28. ^ Coddington, Deborah M.P. (30 March 2004). "Parliamentary debate: 3rd reading of Radio New Zealand Amendment Bill". Hansard. Retrieved 27 March 2008.[dead link]