Denis Dutton  

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"If you wish to understand the essential nature of murder, you do not begin with a discussion of something complicated or emotionally loaded, such as assisted suicide or abortion or capital punishment. Assisted suicide may or may not be murder, but determining whether such disputed cases are murder requires first that we are clear on the nature and logic of indisputable cases; we move from the uncontroversial center to the disputed remote territories. The same principle holds in aesthetic theory." --The Art Instinct, p. 50

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Denis Dutton (9 February 1944 – 28 December 2010) was an American philosopher of art, web entrepreneur, and media activist. He is the author of The Art Instinct and believer in aesthetic universals.

Controversy surrounding the 'Bad Writing Contest'

In 1995, Dutton used his editorship of the journal Philosophy and Literature to expose what he considered the pretence and conceit of the wilfully obscurantist prose styles of many literary and cultural theorists. The contest noted the tortured prose of figures such as Homi K. Bhabha and Fredric Jameson. In 1998, the Bad Writing Contest awarded first place to University of California-Berkeley Professor Judith Butler, for a piece which appeared in the journal Diacritics. The winning sentence read:

  • The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Dutton noted, "To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it."

After winning the award, Butler refuted the charges of academic pedantry and obscurantism in the pages of the New York Times and the affair briefly became a cause célèbre in the world of academic theorists. (See also Alan Sokal.) Dutton ended the contest after the public kerfuffle, but Butler's sentence is still today cited by critics of postmodernism as an outstanding example of meaningless academese.


Dutton's publications include:

  • Denis Laurence Dutton (1974). Art and anthropology: aspects of criticism and the social studies. University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • Denis Dutton (1983). The Forger's art: forgery and the philosophy of art. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04341-3.
  • Denis Dutton; Michael Krausz (1985). The Concept of creativity in science and art. M. Nijhoff. ISBN 90-247-3127-5.
  • Denis Dutton (2003). Jerrold Levinson, ed. "Authenticity in Art". The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford University Press.
  • Charles A. Murray; Denis Dutton; Claire Fox (2008). In Praise of Elitism. Centre for Independent Studies, The. ISBN 1-86432-166-0.
  • Denis Dutton (2009). The art instinct: beauty, pleasure, & human evolution. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-953942-1.
  • Michael Krausz; Denis Dutton; Karen Bardsley (2009). The idea of creativity. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-17444-3.

See also

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