Aesthetics is a word that comes from the ancient Greeks. It is used to describe the relationship between art and one’s perceptions of beauty. The word is also used to summarize the style of one artist or art movement, for example, The Cubist aesthetic or ancient Egyptian aesthetics. Philosophers as far back as the ancient Greeks (who also invented theatre) have talked about the idea of aesthetic distance. In his book Poetics, Aristotle discusses the role of storytelling (through poetry, theatre, and art) in society. He used the term ‘mimesis’ (to mimic) to indicate that these stories are not real life but reflections of the experiences of being alive. He warns against making theatre too realistic, but, at the same time, recommends the emotional release or catharsis of tragedies, which, he believed, can be beneficial to society.
One of the more familiar terms found in critical discussions of the arts is ‘distance’. Critics speak of the difficulties involved in ‘distancing’ art objects of their own time; art historians remark upon the all-too-great distance we have from art objects and ancient civilisations; one of the important innovations in contemporary theatre is supposed to have to do with the use of certain distancing devices as the Brechtian alienating techniques; anti-pornographers dwell upon the break-down that occurs upon the introduction of erotic subject-matter into visual art. Also, there are those compound terms formed by the union of distance and involvement. For example, it is alleged that an appreciator of a novel can become too personally involved to be able to appreciate the aesthetic quality of the work. When an individual becomes too personally involved, he is said to ‘under-distance’ the work. On the other hand, an appreciator can have too little involvement with work with the effect that he ‘over-distances’ it. Either way, aesthetic appreciation is precluded because one’s distance relationship to the object has not been properly taken care of.
The term aesthetic distance refers to a three-way conversation between the arts, artists, and the audience. In this case, the term ‘artist’ can mean anyone who makes things for others to look at or experience, like painters, writers, musicians, movie producers and more. When one becomes completely absorbed in the experience, one may forget there is an artist (or a whole production crew) who created the experience. This space is perceived or experienced by the viewer and might be carefully controlled by the artists who made the art.
The notion of aesthetic distance derives from an article by Edward Bullough published in 1912. In that article, he begins with the image of a passenger on a ship observing fog at sea. If the passenger thinks of the fog in terms of danger to the ship, the experience is not aesthetic, but to regard the beautiful scene in detached wonder is to take a legitimate aesthetic attitude. One must feel, but not too much.
The aesthetic distance thus refers to the gap between a viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality presented in a work of art. When a reader becomes fully engrossed in the illusory narrative world of a book, the author has achieved a close aesthetic distance. If the author then jars the reader from the reality of the story, essentially reminding the reader they are reading a book, the author is said to have violated the aesthetic distance.