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

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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This is sad news...ALD is the first place I go to start the day. Condolences to his family.

sad loss for the community and his family --i guess i will have to buy a ALD coffee cup now

How tragic. This one's heart goes out to all those who knew and cared for him.

Dennis Dutton was a good man whose life efforts continue to bring immense benefits to countless people. I respected him enormously.

Perhaps his most significant contribution was the creation of Arts and Letters Daily, now my home page and the home page of hundreds of thousands across the globe.

To that creation he brought a intellectual and spiritual freedom which transcended diverse mono-cultural deceptions.

Dennis was an old-school rebel, one who grasped what books and critical thought forms are meant to do: instigate, arouse, stimulate, and help us break free from our self-created prisons.

May he rest in Peace and Light.

This is sad news, and a sad end to this year.

I too was a longtime daily reader of Arts & Letters Daily. I often quietly marveled at the consistent, daily effort that Professor Dutton put into his curation.

I regret that I didn't thank him enough for his work.

My thoughts are with his family, and with his colleagues who are now left to carry on.

Very sorry for the family's loss: Brothers Davis and his wife Judy, Doug and his wife Penney, and sister Doris - All of whom attended North Hollywood High and worked in the family bookstores "Duttons Books" founded in 1962 by their parents and nurtured by the children through the years. Anyone who ever worked there, or browsed there had a window open that forever changed the way they looked at books, art, literature and history. May he rest in peace and may the family have the comfort of knowing he was loved, respected and will be missed and remembered.

I noticed instantly the somber appearance of my home page this morning, and when I read the reason for it, I felt sucker-punched. I had come to feel I knew the man with the original, iconoclastic mind putting together aldaily. I shall miss him.

Not knowing that Dutton was ill I was stunned as well as saddened. I have long been familiar with his thinking and am a daily regular to A&L. He will be missed and his influence missed as well.

Thank you for writing such a nice obit. I wanted to also mention what an impact that Denis had on his students. As a former student of his I can honestly say that no one with the exception of my parents was as influential in making me into what I am today. Denis taught me how to think critically. I’m sure that anyone who took one of his classes feels grateful that they did.

My introduction to Denis was in 1978 at the University of Michigan. The name of that first class was Intro to Philosophy. He had the ability to take what could have been very dry material and make it come alive. He was also tough. If you hadn’t done your homework or didn’t think through an argument thoroughly, he could be brutal. It was more than a few times that I left his class feeling emotionally and intellectually beaten but exhilarated at the same time. I still remember what he said at the end of the first class that I took from him. “In the years to come, if you don’t remember anything about this class, remember this: Make sure that if you take a stand on something, leave open that possibility that you could be wrong. Your hypothesis must be falsifiable. Don’t be afraid to be wrong.”

Denis, like a lot of professors, never cared about fashion or what people thought about his appearance. He had a “Dutch boy” haircut and usually wore red flannel shirts that were never tucked in. In the winter he wore a brown cap with ear flaps and a long green coat. His briefcase was an old satchel. He was often late to class and would come running in with that goofy hat on carrying that briefcase. It looked like he just landed a bi-plane and was there to deliver the mail. He drove an old blue Chevy. The passenger side was completely crushed in. It was a wonder that the car was drivable.

Over the years I took four classes from Denis. Although I was a business major, I consider his classes on ethics and critical thinking to be more important in my career than a lot of the business courses I took.

I kept in touch with him over the years. I would often make suggestions for articles to include in his website Arts and Letters Daily. I bet I was one of the first to buy his book “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.” I sent him a congratulatory email when he appeared on The Colbert Report and marveled that he was on the same show as Paul McCartney.

Denis told me that he was sick but swore me to secrecy. I have some comfort in knowing that I was able to express to him how important he and his classes meant to me. He will be greatly missed.

My condolences go out to his family and friends.


Rich Roberts
Dearborn Heights, MI

Arts&Letters Daily is a wonderful site, even in spite of its obvious conservative bias.

This is a very sad loss for the world's intellectual community. I will only mention that Prof. Dutton was also an editor of the journal "Philosophy and Literature."

So sad to hear this news. I've been a consistent reader of A&LD since a friend introduced me to it in '98. I can't imagine it no longer existing. I knew nothing about Denis Dutton; the tributes to him have been lovely. He must have been a wonderful man and a great teacher.

Thank you, Dutton family and all colleagues who helped Dennis Dutton to help so many more. What a huge loss. What a huge legacy. Thank you.

I was fortunate enough to have lived in West Los Angeles while Dutton's bookstore was still open and was a cultural oasis in [hi-low-no brow] mass media LA. I, like countless others, have been a daily visitor to the ALD website and also have strong intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic ties to New Zealand, having walked the streets of Christchurch and the University of Canterbury campus. The closing of Dutton's in Brentwood was the end of an era. I sincerely hope Denis Dutton's legacy with which he has gifted our emerging global digital culture lives on.

AL Daily was right-wing anti-humanism with a human face. I fear it will drift Beck-wards without Dutton's ameliorating influence. A sad loss.

"What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy, of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own." Denis Dutton lived up to that ideal of the philosopher as well as any man of our era has. He never acquiesced in a facile orthodoxy even of his own. He published ideas he did not personally entertain, in the hope that the Darwinian struggle of ideas would lead to real philosophy. Denis's death is a loss to the world of mind, and to us all. GJ Leonard, SFSU

A wonderful colleague at Canterbury University.
When I joined the University last year I was fortunate to meet him and have some wonderful discussions in his cramped small office.
Due to the fact that I am a classical musician we had most animated discussions as he was a total piano afficionado.
He had donated his several thousands Classical LPs to the Uni library earlier.
I particulary remember our rantings about Glenn Gould where we both agreed on Gould being an extremely instinctive musician rather than the intellectual many see him as.
He had a great sense of humour and I cannot believe he is gone.

He will be greatly missed.

Michael Endres

Hearty thanks to Mr. Dutton who has enabled an intelligent community
of thinkers and writers on the arts. Every morning, the first thing, I
bring up your site and find something stimulating and helpful. His
achievement will last as long as our will and hearts continue this work.

Oh NO! Denis Dutton is DEAD?!? I've been riveted by this podcast with him all week! ==>


Thank you, Professor Dutton, for the creation of your website ALDAILY (Arts Letters Daily).

Professor Dutton has re-created the tradition of the literary-intellectual salon
adapting it to our time,
following the maxim expressed by the brilliant Roman intellectual and poet of the Augustan Age, Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace):
“aut prodesse … aut delectare … aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae”
(to either benefit or delight us, or, at one and the same time, to speak words that are both pleasing and useful for our lives).

So to Professor Dutton and his work, ALDAILY, definitely the Horatian dictum is to be applied:
“Exegi monumentum aere perennius”
(I have made a monument more lasting than bronze)

Condolences to his family and friends – from the bottom of my heart.



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