Aesthetic Distance: Definition & Application

Instructor: June Covington

June teaches art and art history. She has a master's degree in The Humanities.

In this lesson, we will discuss aesthetic distance in the arts. We'll define the term, learn of its history, and examine some examples of its relevance today.

What Is Aesthetic Distance?

When we go to the art museum (or see a performance, or pick up a book) we want to experience something out of the ordinary. Sometimes this experience can seem more real than our daily lives.

Have you ever found yourself so caught up in a story (in a book, painting, movie, or theater performance) that you felt like it was really happening? If so, then you have experienced close aesthetic distance. This distance can't be measured, it is a philosophical idea which describes the relationship between the arts, the artist, and the audience.

Distance in this case simply takes into consideration the degree to which an audience is involved in a work of art.

Definitions of Terms

'Aesthetics' is a word that comes from the ancient Greeks. It is used to describe the relationship between art and our 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.

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 any one who makes things for others to look at or experience, like painters, writers, musicians, movie producers and more.

When you become completely absorbed in the experience, you 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.

History of the Idea

Philosophers as far back as the ancient Greeks (who also invented theater) have talked about the idea of aesthetic distance. In his book Poetics, Aristotle discusses the role of storytelling (through poetry, theater, 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 theater too realistic, but, at the same time, recommends the emotional release or catharsis of tragedies, which, he believed, can be beneficial to society.

Paintings can sometimes be made in such a way that they fool the eye into believing that what is in the painting is not layers of paint on a canvas but actual objects. In the early Renaissance, artists like Giotto in Italy, painted frescoes with life-size human figures set in a simple landscape.

To our eyes, these paintings by Giotto might seem a bit stiff, but at that time, the paintings were miraculously lifelike.
Painting by Giotto

The idea that 'art imitates life' is called verisimilitude, which comes from two Latin terms: 'verum' meaning truth and 'similis' meaning similar. Although many people seem to prefer art that tells a story, makes a statement, or relates to their lives, we don't want every detail. We are happy with the highlights. We like to have an experience that seems real without actually having to suffer or wait for years while a story unfolds. Only a few works of art deal with the actual passing of time.

Not everyone wants to face the dangers encountered in a movie or a book. We like to keep a little bit of aesthetic distance between ourselves and peril.
Movie Poster

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