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Denis Dutton Remembered
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Denis Dutton Remembered

Ellen Dissanayke

​In October 1981, I gave a special talk, the Second David and Marianna Mandel Lecture, at the annual ASA conference, held that year in Tampa. My talk was titled “Aesthetic Experience and Human Evolution” and was published, with revisions, in 1982 in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. At the time, Mr. Mandel was a retired labor lawyer in his eighties; he was passionate about a new field that was then called sociobiology and had himself self-published a book about art in human evolution called Changing Art, Changing Man. By endowing these lectures to the ASA, he hoped to stimulate the interest of philosophers of art in the subject of the arts in human evolution.

Sixteen years later (in late 1997), when I met Denis Dutton for the first time, he confessed that he had attended that Tampa conference. He had even looked in the door of my talk but didn’t go inside to listen since the subject didn’t interest him. However, in 1995 his name (and existence) came to my attention when a colleague showed me Denis’s review of my second book, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (1992) in the Bookmarks section of Philosophy and Literature, the journal he founded. It remains the lengthiest, most thoughtful, and most positive review that the book has received (for a slightly rewritten version in 1994, see

​So what happened between 1981 and 1995?  I appreciate the irony of the fact that the man who in 2009 published a blockbuster book called The Art Instinct (by far the most well-known discussion of the subject of aesthetic experience and human evolution) passed up an early opportunity to hear a talk about exactly that. He was certainly fully on board at our first meeting and we easily became both colleagues and friends at that time.

​Besides art and evolution, we discovered many overlaps in our interests. Astronomy? I knew the names of all the constellations (and a bit more) from a class I had taken; he had a telescope in his back yard. South Asia? I had lived in Sri Lanka; he, in India. South Asian music? I had come to love the stuff; he learned to play the sitar. Classical music?  Piano was my undergraduate major and I still played chamber music; he listened to classical music constantly on earphones and at concerts, took piano lessons as an adult, and had hosted a classical music radio program. Anthropology? I had lived in Nigeria and Papua New Guinea, later using my experiences and reading in my thought and work; Denis’s doctoral thesis focused on the relationship between art and anthropology, especially on the problems and possibilities of cross-cultural understanding. He had lived with carvers in the Sepik River area of PNG.

​There’s more. I learned recently from an obituary that as a university student Denis “found himself particularly fascinated by the philosophy of art: ‘I was trying to figure out how works of art – literature, music, paintings – could produce such intense experiences in human beings.’”  My own interest in human ethology (behavioral biology laced with evolution) was first sparked by an overpowering music listening experience I had as an 18-year-old undergraduate.

​Although we met rarely – perhaps four times – we stayed in touch by telephone and e-mail. It was of course a shock last fall to learn that Denis was undergoing cancer treatments. Only now, looking back over our correspondence in order to write this remembrance, did I piece together that Denis, unknown to any of us, had faced cancer seven years earlier. We met for what would be the last time at a workshop of evolution-and-arts scholars in Auckland in November 2003. After the last day, I remember several of us speculating that Denis had seemed uncharacteristically quiet and “pensive.” When I wrote to him about it right after the workshop, he replied “Pensiveness had to do with work for the week and a sneaking regret that we spilled over into Monday (leaving Sunday night would have been more convenient).”
​But in September 2010, after I first heard of Denis’s cancer, he replied to a message from me: “Didn’t I mention this diagnosis to you in Auckland?  I thought I had.  That was very early and I didn’t know if it was going to advance.  Alas, it has, and I have a kind of resistible bone cancer in my shoulder (and elsewhere). But it is not as deadly and aggressive as other bone cancers, and I am responding to the chemo, which does not happen with most people.”
Well, that explained the “pensiveness” in 2003, which was most unlike his usual energy and bonhomie. I well remember running behind him to keep up as we strode “together” to a hotel elevator or dining room. He was a “Constant Force” (his e-mail name). But did any of us suspect that while he was writing, publishing, and then enjoying the acclaim of his book, cancer had been and would be again his companion?

​What I’ll remember most about Denis are his energy, good humor, generosity, intellectual curiosity, and – in the end – his kindness and courage:  

From Denis, September 2010. When I go for treatment I see mums with young toddlers there, and teenagers.  No self-pity is possible! …I’ve had such a charmed life in so many respects that it would be unreasonable for me to feel very sorry for myself.  Our son in Sydney, Ben, has just proposed to his dreamboat girlfriend. She is so super! And Sonia opened her art gallery in Austin Texas, last week, and my book is an embarrassing success …
Got new projects now I want to take on for our summer, which is just beginning.
Warmest wishes,
Nov. 20, 2010 From Denis to a group of colleagues: Have had a few rough patches in terms of health… I’m crippled, confined to bed, unable to walk. Damn. Trying to keep up with your lovely conversations here.  What with all the morphine, it’s the best I can do.

“Keep up” he did.  Until two weeks from the end, even when bedridden, he was reading our papers in attachments, recommending articles he liked, commenting on our exchanges. I think I speak for Denis’s colleagues as well as myself in saying that his example will remain both constant and forceful in our continuing efforts to understand the role of the arts and aesthetic experience in our ancestral past and today.

​I’ll end with a “pure Denis” message from a year ago that conveys his unique spirit as well as anything anyone has written about him:  

From Denis: 27 Jan 2009.  Next week at this time, I’ll be back in sleepy Christchurch, dreaming of the glory days -- the stretch limos to take me to CBS and the Comedy Central studios, the dinners at Elaine’s, the adulation.  It’ll all be over.  But for now -- violins, please -- I live the dream….   sigh….  And… Thank you, Mr. Darwin, wherever you are…. (steps out of the spotlight)

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