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Denis Dutton dies; author, philosopher, brother to L.A. booksellers

December 28, 2010 |  6:14 am

Denisdutton_2009
Denis Dutton, the author, academic and philosopher who saw the Web as a place where intelligent ideas could flourish, has died in New Zealand at the age of 66, according to New Zealand news sources. Dutton was raised in Los Angeles and was the brother of booksellers Doug and Dave Dutton of the legendary Dutton's Bookstores in Los Angeles.

Dutton was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 1998, he founded the website Arts and Letters Daily, an aggregator of intellectual Web content that swiftly caught worldwide attention. His most recent book was 2009's "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution."

Our reviewer Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote, " 'The Art Instinct' is an important book that raises questions often avoided in contemporary aesthetics and art criticism. ... His arguments against major figures in the philosophy and anthropology of the arts are often devastating -- and amusing."

Dutton was at times considered a contrarian; in our opinion pages in 2004, he wrote, "[Peter] Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' represents the victory of special effects over dramatic art. ... I have never looked at my watch as often during a movie as I did in "The Return of the King." Toward the end, I found myself desperately cheering on the giant spider in hope of getting home early. Eat Frodo! Eat him!"

In February 2010, he gave a TED talk on the philosophy of art. "I try to figure out -- intellectually, philosophically, psychologically -- what the experience of beauty is," he began. Though most TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) talks feature the author speaking on stage, Dutton's video includes a collaboration with animator Andrew Park, illustrating his ideas of the hallmarks of beauty.

Dutton's work, contrary or inspiring, encouraged a multiplicity of ideas. "It's a grave mistake in publishing, whether you're talking about Internet or print publication, to try to play to a limited repertoire of established reader interests," he said in a 2000 interview with Salon.com. "A few years ago, Bill Gates was boasting that we'll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes; let's expand ourselves intellectually.

He told the interviewer, "We'd love Arts & Letters Daily to be the meeting place for critical thinkers from all over the map."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Denis Dutton, right, at the L.A. Public Library's ALOUD series in January 2009. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times

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