Dutton's debate is not over

Last updated 10:25 10/01/2011
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Philosophy professor Denis Dutton.

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Denis Dutton was one of New Zealand's and the world's most challenging thinkers. He died this week of a cancer-related illness. PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

Denis Dutton stood at the front of the room in a shirt and tie and said, "I'm going to give you some contrarian ideas today". That was at the start of a Google lecture, filmed for delivery on the internet on January 14, 2009, but you suspect that he could have said the very same thing at almost any point in his career.

The Google lecture was in Mountain View, California, an early stop on Dutton's coast-to- coast United States promotional tour for his book, The Art Instinct. He talked about his book to people who work for radio stations and newspapers, magazines and television. He gave speeches and was hosted at dinners. He even appeared on the satirical current- affairs talk show The Colbert Report, holding his own against the intimidatingly sharp Stephen Colbert.

He had finished writing the book - described by him and others as his magnum opus - and promoted it in the knowledge that he had cancer.

It would be easy to say there is a pleasing shape to this, to have a career-concluding achievement completed and recognised. The book was both a bestseller in the US and academically well received - a rare double feat. He expected controversy but largely got acceptance. You suspect he was a little bit relieved and a little bit disappointed.

At that point, almost no-one knew about the cancer. Not his academic colleagues, not the journalists he met. When he had returned from that tour, in February 2009, I interviewed him in his office in the philosophy department at Canterbury University.

"Man, what a trip that was," he said. He had been away 3 1/2 weeks, he was "absolutely flat out". He said he was feeling jetlagged and a little feverish. He seemed both tired and restless.

Before he could sit down, the phone went. It was the university's communications unit updating him about the long list of media appearances under his name in an upcoming publicity bulletin.

He looked over at me and the Your Weekend photographer, smiled into the phone and said, "Just dusting out the publicity rug."

He talked about his office's wall of art. Tribal art from Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Russian icons bought off a ship in Lyttelton, not long after Perestroika. Original Blakes. A large Japanese landscape painting that he used to illustrate one of his ideas in The Art Instinct, about the universality of art taste.

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Part of his argument about the evolutionary basis of art is that art is pleasurable. In the flesh, Francis Bacon paintings are pleasurable, he argued. Oedipus Rex is pleasurable. King Lear is pleasurable.

Back to the American tour. He had been in Washington DC on the night of Barack Obama's inauguration, at a function mostly populated by conservative Republicans - "and every person around the table approved of Obama and wished him well".

In the same city, he had dinner with journalist Christopher Hitchens. "He's a wild man," Dutton said. "A passionate, driven, creative personality. He likes nothing better than a good stoush."

That meeting of contrarian minds seems sad in retrospect. Since then, both have battled cancer. Hitchens made his diagnosis public in 2010, during a book tour for his memoir, Hitch 22. He is 61. Dutton died on Tuesday, December 28, and he was 66.

Dutton grew up in Los Angeles, California, not far from Hollywood. Sometimes he said that explained his relative ease with all things showbiz. His father ran a bookstore and his mother was a musician. His own musical abilities were largely limited to appreciation, although a spell learning the sitar in India in the 1960s was formative in shaping arguments that would coalesce decades later in The Art Instinct.

He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of California Santa Barbara in 1975. The following year, while working at the University of Michigan, he founded the journal Philosophy and Literature, a project he had been thinking about since he was an undergraduate in California. In 1983, the journal was taken over by Johns Hopkins University Press, but Dutton continued as its editor until months before his death.

Over the years, he added more projects - most famously, the Arts and Letters Daily website. In 2009, I asked how he found the time.

"There are 24 hours in the day," he replied. "It seems like a lot to me."

In 1984, Dutton joined the staff of the University of Canterbury, bringing his wife Margit and their two children. Within a year he had appeared in the Press talking about one of his extracurricular activities. This was a coalition of scientists to challenge pseudoscience in the media. It would evolve into the New Zealand Skeptics, which Dutton co-founded in 1986.

It was in this role that most New Zealanders first heard of Dutton, when he acted as rational balance in news stories whenever someone claimed to have psychic powers or supernatural knowledge.

The Skeptics would hand out bent spoon awards to journalists who swallowed unscientific hokum. If you wrote about new age cures or UFO sightings, you were sure to hear from them.

By the early 90s, Dutton had become a spokesman for scepticism and for quality broadcasting. He described TVNZ as "a company which has systematically degraded the intellectual atmosphere and knowledge base of our country. The notion that it somehow enhances New Zealand culture to have this joke of a television network before us is quite simply risible".

It's easy to see why most editors, producers and journalists liked hearing from Dutton. He was quotable, fearless and entertaining, with the intellectual weight of an academic institution behind him. At one point, he was even consulted by this newspaper when it appeared The Simpsons might be cancelled: The Press reported that "Canterbury University philosopher and Simpsons fan" Denis Dutton found the show to be witty and imaginative, able to send up the Reaganite Right and the politically correct Left without ever descending into crudity.

In the 1990s, when New Zealand was in the grip of post-modernism and neo-liberalism, his conservative restatement of core principles - the scientific method, the value of high culture - could seem contrarian. They seem less controversial a decade or more later.

In 1998, he called the newly- opened Te Papa's treatment of art "shoddy" and the museum itself "a national embarrassment". Time seems to have borne out that early view of Te Papa.

He campaigned against celebrity pianist David Helfgott, from a high culture position that could, in this instance, appear a tad mean-spirited. His campaign seemed to be not just an attack on an "incompetent, mentally disordered pianist" but on the kitsch tastes of the public.

He joined the board of Radio New Zealand and argued against its Left-leaning news bias, as he perceived it. He ran a bad writing contest, designed to mock difficult academic prose. He joined a trust that supported the reopening of the case against Peter Ellis. Sometimes his conservative cultural position revealed a conservative political one, as in his support for the Iraq War in a Press column in 2003. In that case he was not sceptical enough, some have said.

But you could like Dutton's views on culture even if you disagreed with his politics. Case in point: in 2004, The Press, the New Zealand Herald, the Australian and the Los Angeles Times all carried versions of his critique of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. Dutton found the films "ham-fisted, shallow, bombastic, and laughably overrated" but thought Jackson should be recognised for his "managerial capacities and showman's instincts". As time goes on, it's not hard to believe Dutton was right about that, too.

Essentially, Dutton took on a role that has often been vacant in New Zealand: the conservative public intellectual. In 2007, when Auckland University Press published Speaking Truth to Power, a book of interviews with New Zealand public intellectuals, Fairfax columnist Karl Du Fresne thought that the book's line-up excluded Right-wing intellectuals. He put Dutton at the top of his list.

Du Fresne expands on this. "The word 'intellectual' has largely been monopolised by the Left in New Zealand and Denis is one of the few who challenged that monopoly," he says. "Denis presented us with the radical notion that it's possible to be intellectual and Right-wing.

"I also think that being American and naturally loquacious, Denis has never been handicapped by the crippling New Zealand reserve (or timidity, if you like) that makes most of us so reluctant to thrust our heads above the parapets."

Dutton's greatest achievement as a public intellectual was launching Arts and Letters Daily in 1998. As an aggregator site, Arts and Letters gathered the internet's best reviews, essays and arguments. Back when the internet was an unknown country to most - and Google was years away from being invented - Dutton's site did away with laborious searching.

It was both a good idea and a good idea well presented. Much of its success was attributable to the snappy summaries Dutton wrote for each story. He had a sub- editor's knack for encouraging you to read more.

Dutton had known for a long time that good content needed to be matched by presentation. More than a decade earlier, in an interview with The Press, he talked about studying book design and typography before launching Philosophy and Literature.

He said, "I have seen journals with good financial backing and editorial support die because they looked so bad nobody wanted to publish them."

Arts and Letters Daily took off quickly. Within a few months, the Guardian called it "a learned delight" and the best website in the world. It got big numbers and has continued to do so, receiving 3.7 million page views per month. It changed hands over the years, sold by Dutton to Lingua Franca, then picked up by the Washington DC- based Chronicle of Higher Education, but Dutton kept editorial control until months before his death.

It was in this capacity, as an internet pioneer, that Time magazine called Dutton one of "the most influential media personalities in the world".

Those and other plaudits from the Guardian and Time were dutifully read out at the Christchurch Town Hall a few weeks ago when the University of Canterbury presented Dutton with one of its highest honours, the Research Medal.

It came during the Humanities, Social Sciences and Science graduation ceremony.

We heard from the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, which compared The Art Instinct to the work of John Dewey, Ernst Kris and Sigmund Freud and said, "The house of aesthetics has many mansions; Dutton's will doubtless stand for a long time".

We heard from the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. We heard from professor Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri, who said of Dutton, "I don't know what we would have done without him", and added, "There are many scholars and scientists at the highest level who have been influenced by his work".

A murmur went through the audience of academics, graduates and families when Freud's name was mentioned - everyone had heard of this guy at least. And hopefully also Steven Pinker.

Pinker, a Harvard University professor, acted as referee for Dutton's nomination for the Research Medal. He said in a statement: "Dutton is a true intellectual leader, an astonishingly productive and daring scholar and one of the most influential academics in the world. The University of Canterbury is fortunate to have such a brilliant and hard-working polymath on its faculty."

The Research Medal recognised The Art Instinct. In the book, Dutton tried to find an evolutionary basis for our capacity for art production. Like the peacock's tail that perplexed Charles Darwin, art does not appear to have had an evolutionary function - it may even have been a hindrance.

But in the growing field of evolutionary psychology, all things must have evolutionary value. And art? According to Dutton, it is the display of skill and ingenuity.

The larger context, as William Deresiewicz argued in a long review in US magazine the Nation, is the battle in American universities between "literary Darwinists" and proponents of increasingly unfashionable "theory". The theorists, more Left- leaning and in thrall to European thinkers like Derrida and Foucault, were the kinds of people mocked by Dutton's bad writing award.

Deresiewicz was suspicious of evolutionary psychology in general and Dutton's book in particular, seeing his ideas as tending to "disintegrate under pressure".

Dutton was ready for these and other critics. When I interviewed him in 2009, he expected the negativity to "start happening" soon; he courted it by boldly daring "to write the theory of art that would blow 40 years of academic ideology out of the water". Yet he claimed he made converts of some reviewers.

Damian Da Costa in the New York Observer was one. Da Costa wrote that Arts and Letters Daily had grown "increasingly strident" and "ideologically conservative" as it took on more and more of Dutton's "obsessions", including evolutionary psychology. Yet Da Costa wrote that the book was "anything but strident".

In the two years since publication and the attendant blaze of publicity, The Art Instinct has possibly become more accepted. As of December, 2010, the hour-long Google lecture had been viewed only about 7000 times on YouTube. But a shorter, punchier version delivered a year later to a Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in Long Beach, California, had been viewed more than 100,000 times in less than a month.

It helps that it was only 15 minutes long and animated by Andrew Park. It's a watchable summary of Dutton's big idea for those without the patience to read the book.

Watching the clip, you see that the theory has some way to go and that Dutton risks being prescriptive when he says what beauty is and should be - no longer in the eye of the beholder, or the art critic, but determined by evolution. And nor has the theory found a way to explain the appeal of art that is not beautiful, or what to do if we disagree on what is pleasurable. Perhaps Dutton might have gone on to iron these nuances out, if he had had time.

As it was, the Canterbury University Research Medal was also a marker of mortality. Dutton was brought on stage halfway through the graduation ceremony in a wheelchair. He listened to University of Canterbury Deputy Vice-Chancellor Ian Town read the citation, with its glowing quotes.

Then Dutton read his short speech. He thanked the university for the research environment it had cultivated. He pointed to the lasting example of Karl Popper, the Viennese philosopher who fled Europe in 1937 and spent the war years at Canterbury.

Popper had introduced Christchurch to the highest ideals of what a university can and should be. "It should be a research institution," Dutton said. "Long may Popper's ideals guide scholarship here at Canterbury."

Like Dutton, Popper was an immigrant philosopher who enriched Canterbury University. Over the years, Dutton was fond of citing Popper's line that one must put forward hypotheses that are open to falsification. In short, it's about an argument culture. Dutton even quoted Popper as justification for Climate Debate Daily, a website he co-founded in 2008 on which he wished to present all aspects of the debate over climate change. That was yet another extracurricular project.

The argument culture is the university ideal. In that vein, Dutton thanked his colleagues for all their critiques and arguments. And there were even traces left of his characteristic sense of humour when he said, "Those arguments have been a lot of fun and sometimes they were even right".

- The Press

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