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  • Constantforce:Remembering Denis Dutton (1944–2010)1
  • Wilfried Van Damme

“Denis, I would like you to meet someone who actually likes your work.” This is how the aesthetician David Novitz introduced me to Denis Dutton, while we were having a tea break on the first morning of the historic Pacific Rim Conference in Transcultural Aesthetics, held at the University of Sydney in June 1997.2

Shortly before, I had told David that Denis’s anticipated presence at the conference had been for me, a European postdoc eager to explore global approaches to art and aesthetics, one of the many features that had made the prospect of participating in the Sydney conference such a thrilling affair. David, a colleague, friend, and intellectual opponent of Denis at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, then informed me about the many enemies Denis had made in academia after he had started organizing the Bad Writing Contest in 1995. This now well-known charge against obscurantist prose in the humanities had escaped my attention, but seemed like a welcome initiative that was fully in line with its originator’s views on scholarship.

I knew Denis’s work mainly through his Bookmarks in the journal Philosophy and Literature, which he edited. I had discovered these vivid and at times hilariously debunking reviews after reading Denis’s essay “Mythologies of Tribal Art,” published in the journal African Arts in 1994. As in many of his Bookmarks, in this essay he battled against the more cantankerous variants of the postmodern turn that were making themselves increasingly felt in the anthropology of art. He exposed the ideological biases, jargonized rhetoric, willful misreadings, and lack of empirical foundation of a series of philippics in which self-righteous scholars, usually from outside the field, had started accusing previous [End Page A10] writers on “tribal art” of sinning against everything that contemporary political correctness held dear.

Being well acquainted with the anthropology of art, I was all too aware of the belligerent and embarrassingly uninformed character of many of these at times vicious attacks. I had also struggled through several essays from the same postmodern/poststructural mold promising new directions informed by “critical theory.” But the increasingly predictable and one-sided perspectives of these essays had failed to enthuse me, while their often pompous prose, expressing fashionable phraseology in convoluted sentences, had made me doubt my command of English. I therefore much enjoyed the sharp-minded and down-to-earth rebuttals of a courageous and lone scholar who showed that more often than not the emperor had no clothes.

Although this may come as a surprise to people who, like myself at the time, knew Denis only through his fierce criticism of what he considered trendy posturing, sloppy thinking, and mystifying gobbledygook, in person he was a most kind and generous man. This became clear to me when, later that day, I inquired whether he had had the opportunity to browse through my book Beauty in Context: Towards an Anthropological Approach to Aesthetics. Based on my Ph.D. dissertation, this work had been published a few months before, and I had made sure that the editor of Philosophy and Literature received a review copy. At the time of the Sydney conference, and inspired by the work of Ellen Dissanayake, whose book Homo Aestheticus he had praised highly in his journal, Denis was already on the road to an evolutionary approach to art and aesthetics.

My book’s title must have given him the impression, not unreasonably, that it was all about cultural relativism in aesthetics and hence presented a culturalist rather than a naturalist point of view. In an amicable, nonpolemic way he replied: “You know, I’ve somewhat lost interest in the idea of beauty being socially constructed. I’m more interested in aesthetic universals these days.” To which I replied: “My book is about both!” Some time later I got the impression that the long chapter on “Universalism in Aesthetics,” for example, had indeed not escaped Denis’s attention; when I asked him about the results of his research on the aesthetic standards of Sepik sculptors in New Guinea, he replied: “Nothing that you don’t already know.” In...


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