Denis Dutton Remembered
On the morning of December 28th, I learned that Denis Dutton had died. Denis was a terrific mentor to me when I was a junior member of the profession. I confess, I had not known he was ill. I miss him very much.
We mainly met at conferences, although periodically, and sadly too few times in recent years. The first time I met Denis was at the ASA meeting held several years ago in Santa Barbara. Everyone from the conference attended a reception on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. I didn’t realize until much later that this was Denis’s alma mater. At UC Santa Barbara, Denis and I met at the exhibit of – I think it was – Goya engravings in the art gallery adjacent to the reception. His eye for technique was tremendous, as was his ability to narrate what made these works so visually and emotionally compelling.
A real highlight of my early academic career was being named to succeed Alex Neill as Assistant Editor of the journal Denis founded, Philosophy and Literature. Denis took a bit of a risk on a junior member of the discipline when he chose me. Back then, we were scarcely into the age of colour-screen computers, but it was very exciting to be in regular contact with Denis and his then co-editor, the wonderful Patrick Henry. There I was in Ontario, Canada, Patrick in Washington State, and Denis in New Zealand, and yet journal business went along well thanks to lots of internet exchanges. Philosophy and Literature continues to be a touchstone for those of us at the intersection of literature and aesthetics.
Members of the ASA who have been to conference meetings at Asilomar just outside of Pacific Grove in California will enjoy a story about a meeting Denis attended a few years ago where I learned about his keen interest in astronomy. During the reception, a few of us went outside with Denis to track a comet visible over southern California with the help of a high-powered set of binoculars he had brought with him from New Zealand.
Denis hated bad prose with a passion. He hated bad academic prose and more so hated bad philosophical prose. He taught me a great deal about how to edit for clarity, and this is a lesson I’ve been sharing with my own students ever since.
In the many tributes to Denis, much has been said about his wonderful book The Art Instinct. I want to mention, in addition, his terrific work on art forgeries, where, in the space of a journal article, Denis propounded a theory of art as performance. It will remain one of his major contributions to the philosophy of art.