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Aesthetic distance, the frame of reference that an artist creates by the use of technical devices in and around the work of art is to differentiate it psychologically from reality. German playwright Bertolt Brecht built his dramatic theory known in English as the alienation effect to accomplish aesthetic distance. Authors of film, fiction, drama, and poetry evoke different levels of aesthetic distance. For instance, William Faulkner tends to invoke a close aesthetic distance by using first-person narrative and stream of consciousness, while Ernest Hemingway tends to invoke a greater aesthetic distance from the reader through the use of third-person narrative.

The term also refers to the way the artist (or the poet) can detach himself from the experience he is presenting and do his work objectively. Several terms have been employed by critics and poet-critics. Objective correlative is one such term. Wordsworth said that the poet presents not so much his personally felt emotions as the emotions recollected in tranquillity. The Indian aesthetics called the art emotion rasa– the emotion of emotion, the art emotion as opposed to life emotion.

Some writers will deliberately increase the aesthetic distance between the audience and the characters, as a means of focusing the audience’s attention on other aspects of the story. The psychology and techniques of the dramatic structure have been studied for centuries. Early on, it was observed that audiences will become more emotionally involved in a story if there is at least one character with whom they can identify. When an audience identifies strongly with a character or characters, they experience the emotional highs and lows of the story as if they were living through it themselves. This is considered a close aesthetic distance. For many kinds of stories, this is the ideal, and writers will expend significant energy and time creating this effect.

There are numerous techniques to decrease the aesthetic distance between an audience and a given character. One way is to have the character come from a background that naturally elicits sympathy, such as poverty or loss; for example, by making the character an orphan. A character with aspects that are shared by a large segment of a given population is called an everyman. A first-person narrative is also an effective means of drawing an audience into a story. It conveys a sense of immediacy to the audience, allowing them to experience the story’s events just as the viewpoint character does.

Famed German playwright Bertolt Brecht pioneered a process he called verfremdungseffekt or the distancing effect. For example, actors might address the audience directly, in character, so the audience could no longer play the role of the impartial observer. Brecht believed this effect would allow the audience to analyze what they were seeing, rather than becoming lost in the story, as most writers intended. He hoped that this would reveal the social problems underlying his story, and perhaps motivate audiences to seek real-world solutions. In modern times, the effect of having a character address the audience is known in film, TV and theatrical production as breaking the fourth wall.

Anything that reminds the audience that the story is not real is said to be violating the aesthetic distance. Usually, this is unintentional, resulting from problems such as unrealistic dialogue in a novel or low-budget special effects in a movie. The ability to tell a gripping story under any circumstances is the mark of a good storyteller. Many successful filmmakers, in fact, first achieved notice because of their ability to engage audiences and close the aesthetic distance, despite working with low budgets. Sometimes, however, a storyteller will have a deliberate reason for increasing the aesthetic distance.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.