As Charlotte notes, Denis Dutton, the founder and editor of the influential and iconoclastic website Arts & Letters Daily, has died of cancer at the age of 66. A professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, Dutton was a longtime editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, which earned renown in the 1990s for its opposition to wretched writing from the academy. For a few years, the journal ran a Bad Writing Contest that dipped into the streams of fashionable nonsense gushing from university English and philosophy departments to pick the worst of the worst. In 1996, the journal also published Alan Sokal’s essay explaining and justifying the brilliant prank he had pulled on the postmodernist journal Social Text.
AL Daily, which Dutton founded in 1998 and edited ever since, is a catalogue of essays, articles, and reviews from around the web. Dutton’s nose for interesting essays and his ear for clear writing kept AL Daily highbrow without ever being hifalutin. The site surely owes much of its enormous popularity to its simplicity — just a few links every day, each with a pithy and enticing blurb. Dutton understood that in an age of overabundant information, less can be more. (He used a similarly spare approach for another site he co-founded, Climate Debate Daily.) Through AL Daily, Dutton forwarded the careers of many dozens of young writers without ever knowing them, since a link from the site can lead an essay to be debated in the blogosphere, noticed by editors, and picked up by book publishers.
Dutton himself wrote many essays and reviews (collected on DenisDutton.com) but only one book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, published about two years ago. It’s a smart and careful argument about what science might teach us about art and criticism, and what art might tell us about human origins. (John Derbyshire warmly reviewed the book in The New Criterion.) You can watch Dutton, with his typical twinkle in his eye, explain his book’s thesis in a 2009 lecture at AEI here. He will be missed.
– Adam Keiper is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and also the editor of The New Atlantis.