February 2011

IN BRIEF: DENIS DUTTON, R.I.P.

Burying the Hatchet

by Louis Torres

An American philosopher living and teaching in New Zealand, Denis Dutton (1944-2010) was best known as the founding editor of the popular website Arts & Letters Daily. But his major scholarly achievement was The Art Instinct (2009), a book that appealed to ordinary readers as well as to fellow academics and critics. It received more than a hundred reviews, mostly positive, and has been translated into some half dozen languages.

My own rather harsh review of the book dealt only with the chapter entitled "What Is Art?" I concluded that Dutton had failed to define the term adequately, which indicated that he did not really know what art is, thereby undermining his book's thesis. Not surprisingly, he disagreed, posting a very brief response on the book's website--which I characterized in a reply as blatantly ad hominem. All this is familiar to anyone who has read the three pieces. If you have not, you might want to begin with the review that initiated the dispute.

Sadly, Denis died on December 28th. His death shocked as well as saddened us. In April of the previous year, Michelle Kamhi and I had met him at a talk on his book at New York University and had engaged in a cordial exchange regarding our different views, which he already knew something about through familiarity with Aristos and occasional e-mail correspondence with Michelle. During the Q&A, I challenged his definition of art, without mentioning my name. When we approached him after the talk to introduce ourselves, however, he flashed a smile of recognition and rightly ventured "Torres and Kamhi?"

My purpose here is not to extend our argument, but to relate how, facing death but not letting on, Denis graciously moved to reconcile our differences. Early in December, soon after the November Aristos had been posted, I wrote to tell him that it included my response to his remarks on my review, and that I was quite critical of him. I added that we would gladly publish a letter from him, should he want to reply.

Within an hour he wrote back: "I don't think your response is unjust. It carries the argument forward and will give people much to consider. Alas, I've been ill lately and cannot come back to engage you further. But there is nothing unfair in what you write." He closed with best wishes to Michelle and me.

I quickly replied, conveying our sincere wishes for his recovery, telling him that, my differences with him notwithstanding, I thought he deserved much credit for stimulating thought on the subject of art and evolution, and that others would consider our respective arguments and make up their own minds. "Most important," I added, "get well!" He immediately shot back with "Thank you! Have a great holiday." Three weeks later, he died.

He will be missed by many--not least, when all is said and done, by Michelle and me.