Denis Dutton, RIP (Part I)

Denis Dutton

The late Denis Dutton, who created the website Arts and Letters Daily and who died at the end of last year, was a someone who I had fairly complicated feelings towards. In the early years of ALD (especially from 2000 to 2004) he used to link to my articles fairly frequently, and this gave a huge boost to my career, giving me a much larger and more international audience. Still I had issues with Dutton’s worldview and also the impact of some of his intellectual activism. Below is an essay I wrote for the Globe and Mail earlier this year which tries to sort out Dutton’s legacy (I’ll have a follow-up post soon).

Who Will Curate the Curators?

“Curated” used to be quite a reserved and genteel adjective, largely found only in the hushed confines of museums and art galleries, with an occasional flirty foray into the film-festival world.

But in recent years, curated has become a word gone wild. Cut loose from the high-culture crowd, it now keeps some strange company.

Techno guru Cory Doctorow has written a column in The Guardian on the limits of “curated computing,” which he describes as “computing experiences where software and wallpaper and attendant foofaraw for your device are hand-picked for your pleasure.”

Meanwhile, a newly hired newspaper editor tells me over drinks that his dream is to create “a carefully curated book-review section” in which each essay would move the literary conversation forward. Why did he say curated rather than edited? Because in the current cultural vernacular, curated is the term of praise everyone aspires to.

The website Static Photography described Ecofashion Week as one of Vancouver’s “most successfully curated fashion weeks ever.” The website Wantlist advertises itself on Twitter as “a curated collection of gift ideas.” The restaurant Touchstone on Lake Muskoka sells itself as offering “a well-curated menu that melds the fresh flavours of Muskoka with European flair.”

You can also find curated movie reviews, curated albums and curated comic-book collections, among other wonders. In its broad sense, curated connotes carefully crafted, well-selected, value-added, discerning, contemporary and aware.

To understand the efflorescence of the word, it helps to examine the career of the late philosopher Denis Dutton, best known for creating the popular Web portal Arts and Letters Daily.

Prof. Dutton, who died of cancer at the age of 66 at the tail end of 2010, was a man of many distinctions – an academic philosopher who taught for nearly three decades at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand; a crusading editor who campaigned against jargon in academic writing; a polymath who tried to fuse aesthetics and neo-Darwinian biology.

But to the wider public, Prof. Dutton was invariably associated with his most celebrated brain-child, AL Daily, which started as a private electronic-mailing list (remember those?), but became an Internet sensation after hitting the Web in 1998.

The concept of AL Daily was strikingly simple: Each day, Prof. Dutton (later assisted by other editors) selected three articles of note about culture and politics from a wide variety of sources, ranging from The New Yorker to more obscure venues such as

Each link would come with a Twitter-like blurb to arouse curiosity, such as these from 2004: “Leonardo da Vinci was in our terms a consultant: a bit of David Hockney, some Stephen Hawking, and a civil engineer … ”; “The litany of death, turmoil, and pain visited on Armenia leaves you surprised that the country still stands at all …”; “Michael Oakeshott called Isaiah Berlin a ‘Paganini of ideas,’ which is better than what Berlin called Oakeshott …”

Though the site provided no original content apart from these blurbs and almost always linked to resolutely intellectual and challenging articles, AL Daily was a huge popular success.

By 2005, it had attracted more than 100 million hits. Throughout the past decade, virtually any writer in the English-speaking world would count a link there as a notch on his or her belt.

And you could justly say AL Daily was one of the first expertly curated websites. Prof. Dutton had an alert eye for articles that were quirky, fresh, off the beaten track and energetically written.

The site was a product of the early days of Web logging, later known as blogging: Just as the authority of scholarship is built on footnotes, the credibility of blogs is based on links to other websites. The idea of curated content is implicit in the form.

But Prof. Dutton was a pioneer in making the curatorial ideal the cornerstone of his brand. AL Daily didn’t link lazily. Behind each blurb was Prof. Dutton’s implicit imprimatur promising solid, fruitful reading. “I don’t like putting up articles I’m not going to enjoy myself,” he said in 2003.

What held it together, what made it feel like a distinct forum rather than a cacophony of discordant voices, was a governing sensibility that combined intellectual curiosity, a delight in language, an appetite for polemics and a desire to read about far-reaching intellectual issues.

Despite his achievements as a scholar (he published the highly praised book on evolution and aesthetics, The Art Instinct, in 2009), Prof. Dutton distrusted academic specialization and preferred public intellectuals to esoteric experts.

Prof. Dutton had a foot in the past as well as the future.

When he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, his parents ran Dutton’s Bookstore, a fixture of Southern California literary culture for many decades. Prof. Dutton also loved classical music and was a passionate advocate of public radio.

Bookstores, the university, concert halls, public radio – all slightly old-fashioned, perhaps even endangered, institutions. That may be why Prof. Dutton wanted to find a way for that culture to thrive in the new medium.

The combination can be seen in the very appearance of AL Daily. The site was designed to

resemble an 18th-century broadsheet with lean columns running down the page, an appropriate look since those early publications were also filled with reprinted articles.

On several levels, it illustrated the old Marshall McLuhan adage that each new medium borrows its content from an older form. AL Daily is as much a throwback to the past as a harbinger of the future.

Its ancestors include publications such as Intellectual Digest, while it anticipated more recent developments such as Twitter.

The wide readership of AL Daily gives the lie to common arguments that the Internet means that we no longer need editors or gatekeepers.

The reverse is true: Every moment, it inundates us with a fresh downpour of content, and online curators such as Prof. Dutton serve as trustworthy Noahs who gather in their ark those few articles, videos or pictures worth preserving.

It’s no accident that the ideal of curatorship is now enjoying renewed respect: We have content providers galore; what we need more of are content selectors.

Still, no curator is perfect.

Prof. Dutton often mentioned Matt Drudge as an inspirational figure in showing the value of doing an aggregator site. And just as you have to read the Drudge Report with a grain of skepticism about gossip, accuracy and right-wing spin, AL Daily also offers a slightly skewed perspective on intellectual life.

Prof. Dutton, commonly described as a contrarian, had his share of crochets, prejudices and blind spots.

Among other things, he leaned toward global-warming denialism. “I think being a global-warming denier disqualifies one as an intellectual honest broker,” historian Rick Perlstein said in an interview.

But perhaps the real lesson is that you can’t naively accept any one curator’s view of the world. While curators help us see the world more clearly by guiding our perceptions, we need on occasion to turn a critical eye to their own ideas and principles as well.

The old question “Who watches the watchmen?” perhaps needs to be revised today to “Who curates the curators?”

6 thoughts on “Denis Dutton, RIP (Part I)

  1. I was reading it piecemeal; then my wife picked it up and started reading it cover to cover. Apparently it works much better that way: he takes great care in the arrangement of the various excerpts.

  2. “Meanwhile, a newly hired newspaper editor tells me over drinks that his dream is to create “a carefully curated book-review section” in which each essay would move the literary conversation forward. Why did he say curated rather than edited? Because in the current cultural vernacular, curated is the term of praise everyone aspires to.”

    There’s a similar aspiration involved with the word “artisanal,” which seems to be taking the place of “home-made” in food, but is being applied even more widely. Dr. Grumpy has been collecting examples, which can be found here:

  3. One minor quibble – I’m not sure what makes Rick Perlstein an honest broker. Enjoyed the article quite a bit – I check AL Daily every morning, so it was nice to get a peak behind the curtain.

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