The term ‘aesthetic distance’ implies a psychological relationship between the reader (or viewer) and a work of art. It describes the attitude or perspective of a person in relation to a work, irrespective of whether it is interesting to that person. A reader may dislike a poem, for instance, for subjective reasons but this should not vitiate his objective reaction. The reader or critic has at once to be involved with – and detached from – what he is concentrating on. The work is ‘distanced’ so that it may be appreciated aesthetically and not confused with reality. The writer bears the responsibility for gauging and determining the distance (not in any spatial sense) at which his work should be viewed. If he bullies the reader into attending, then his reader may be repelled; if he undertakes too much, then his reader may not get the point.
The concept of aesthetic distance has become established in the 20th C., though it appears to be inherent in 19th c. aesthetics; and, as long ago as 1790, Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, had already described the disinterestedness of our contemplation of works of art. In 1912, E. Bullough published an essay entitled Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle (British Journal of Psychology, V) in which he defined ‘psychical distance’. This is an important essay in the history of the concept. Since Bullough, a number of critics have addressed themselves to the matter, including David Daiches in A Study of Literature for Readers and Critics (1948).
More recently, Hans Robert Jauss, in developing his theory of the ‘horizon of expectations‘, has given the term a very different additional significance. In his theory literary value is measured according to ‘aesthetic distance, the degree to which a work departs from the ‘horizon of expectations’ of its first readers.
See also: Discuss Aestheticism Movement