Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Denis Dutton, RIP

I just heard from Noël Carroll that Denis, an old friend of mine from college, died yesterday. The last I had heard from him was a month or so ago, when his cancer had re-emerged and he had gone back into chemo. I had expected this, but not so soon. He had been struggling with the disease for some years. Cheated the Old Man out of several more, he did!

Soon after graduate school, Denis made the unusual career move of relocating to New Zealand, so our contacts were sporadic for a long time. I once asked him how he liked living in this dinky, middle of nowhere country. He said there were advantages to living in a small country. For instance, he knew is own Prime Minister -- personally. (I now think all countries should be small.)

For at least twenty years, we never met face to face. Then about ten years ago we met up again at a meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics. At dinner with Robert Solomon (now also forðférde, or "journeyed forth," as my pagan ancestors used to say) we talked about Denis's remarkable career to date. Soon out of graduate school, he rounded up the few distinguished philosophers who had discussed the presentation of philosophical ideas in literary works (Peter Winch and Stanley Cavell prominent among them) and with their support founded the journal, Philosophy and Literature. To this day, it is the only journal I know of dedicated to this subject, one that is dear to me, as you may know.

Years later, he scored another and greater triumph, with Arts and Letters Daily, sometimes called "the greatest web site in the world). If you go there quickly, you can find links to many obituaries for him in the left column.

At these ASA meetings, he had recently sold the site to the magazine Lingua Franca, and was managing it as their employee (along with performing his more conventional academic duties). Not wanting uncouthly ask how much dough he got for it, I said that, gee whiz, I bet they paid him a tidy sum. He just said, "How do you think I could afford this suit?", pointing a thumb at his lapel. I had no idea what a thousand dollar suit would look like, but this nonetheless made his point pretty effectively.

At dinner with Bob Solomon, though, he was in a glum mood. His whole career has been based on the ideas of others, he said. He was little more than a conduit through which others communicate. Nonsense, we said. You've found something, something important, that you do better than anyone else. How many can say that?

When we had lunch the next day, he told me about some new ideas he had been working on, involving the remarkable persistence of some visual motifs in the most popular landscape paintings, and the possibility of explaining them via evolutionary psychology. Within a few years, he had produced a book that created something of a sensation in the artworld. It is one of the very few books of real philosophy that in my lifetime has had a strong effect outside the tiny world of academic philosophy. Conduit indeed!

He had climbed his last mountain!

In the last message I got from him, he didn't seem to be much happier than you or I would be to die while still in his prime. But I'm sure he realized that he had lived a very full life. Full to overflowing.


Skip said...

My condolences on the loss of your friend.

"The Art Instinct" has been on my to-read list since I first heard of it but I hadn't realized that Dutton was behind A&LD until a couple days ago.

Lester Hunt said...

I must say I haven't gotten round to reading it either, even though I do aesthetics and also find evolutionary explanations powerful. I guess my excuse is I haven't done much with theories of beauty, which I still find rather old-fashioned. But this lecture, though, actually contains an interesting argument for the conclusion that beauty is important: ie., it is adaptive!

Anyway, I've finally ordered it from Amazon. Better late than never.