- Denis Dutton:Universal Connoisseur
What instruments we have agree The day of his death was a dark cold day.—W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”
Denis Dutton, founder and editor of the website Arts & Letters Daily, died of cancer on December 28.1 As most Chronicle readers know, Arts & Letters Daily is widely regarded as the single best site for current cultural commentary, with links to critical articles, essays, and reviews on the arts, politics, intellectual controversies, and other research of broad import. ALD was not quite a one-man show, but in important ways, the site was the man: open but discerning, avidly curious, generously appreciative. Denis was warmhearted but also witty and tough-minded. That intellectual profile was the filter through which the best that was being thought and said found its way onto ALD.
Denis was something like a universal connoisseur. He had expert knowledge in many areas of music, the visual arts, literature, and philosophy; he followed politics with a shrewd critical eye; and he took to heart the central findings in modern evolutionary research into the human mind. By joining a connoisseur’s sensibility with a philosopher’s analytic acuity, he evaluated the imaginative quality of essays and reviews with quick intuitive tact. Even taking account of that kind of quickness, one can hardly help but stand back in wonder at the scope and quality of the world he opened out to his readers every day on ALD.
Arts & Letters Daily represented one pole of Denis’s productive intellectual life—a keen appreciation for diversity and particularity in intellectual and aesthetic experience. The other pole was represented [End Page A22] by his magnum opus, published in 2009: The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. In The Art Instinct, Denis aimed at radical causal reduction; he wanted to bring the rich diversity of cultural reference within the compass of evolutionary explanation.
In The Art Instinct, Denis is telling people what they almost know—that art is wonderful and that it is built into our bones, and the bones of our ancestors. As soon as they hear that, people know it’s true. But many would be afraid to say it themselves, and unable to, because saying it requires crossing an invisible fence—the boundaries created by the belief that all human behavior is produced exclusively by arbitrary cultural conventions. Denis does not engage in antagonistic, aggressive acts against that belief; instead, he simply shows his readers what life is like on the other side of the fence. Denis offers a full, rich account of art in all its multifarious aspects, high and low, popular and elite, appealing to all the senses, engaging the deepest passions, absorbing cultural conventions, and fulfilling the most fundamental human needs.
With the publication of The Art Instinct, Denis achieved the kind of breakthrough into the audience of generally educated readers that most of his colleagues in the humanities have only dreamed about. By speaking simultaneously to scholarly specialists and to the generally educated public, Denis joined a glittering array of “third-culture” writers such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Frans de Waal, Daniel Goleman, Matt Ridley, Nicholas Wade, and Edward O. Wilson. The term “third-culture” refers to writers who are bridging the divide between “the two cultures”: the sciences and the humanities. Other humanists with an evolutionary orientation, myself included, have written books designed to break down the barrier between the sciences and the humanities, but we have not yet reached that broad general audience. Among humanists, Denis was the first.
Even without The Art Instinct, Denis would have had a full and interesting career. Along with founding and editing ALD, he founded and edited the journal Philosophy and Literature. For thirty-three years, that journal has stood as a beacon of clarity and educated good sense. ALD was designed to resemble an eighteenth-century broadsheet, and it thus offered a design metaphor for the ethos of the Enlightenment that also informs Philosophy and Literature. Denis believed in reason and evidence; he wanted to get at the truth of things. He believed in science, and he believed that science could illuminate every...