Mankind can not bear too much reality. — T.S. Eliot
Old T.S. knew what he was talking about when he wrote those words. Too much reality can be a crippling experience. But at the same time we can't spend all our energies running away from the truth. So the key is to find a balance, deal with what you need to, and let other stuff slide.
One of the reasons that popular culture has always been so, well… popular, for lack of a better word, is that it usually offers us just the escape we seem to require; a temporary reprieve form our day-to-day pressures. Television seems to have perfected that function by composing material requiring minimal mental energy that neither challenges the viewer intellectually or emotionally beyond simplistic sentimentality.
Obviously that's a pejorative statement and some television will be a cut above others, but it's not necessarily the content of television that is escapist but the overall intent behind the media. Walk into any room where a television is playing and it can feel like you've walked into a wall of noise, especially if a commercial is playing.
It's not just the sound — there's the visual stimulation as well. You don't really notice it if you're watching the set, but sit in another room, or look into a room where the television is on from outside the house, and watch the continual flickering of light. Each time a camera angle on the screen changes the picture moves and jumps; even just a stationary shot will, with background action, cause the screen to flash.
It's the constant barrage of light and sound that causes the feeling of sleepiness that television inspires. Think of how tired your eyes can become simply staring at the monitor of your computer with its mainly inert images. Think of how, when you see a monitor's reflection in a mirror or a window, it is continually moving even when open on a word document.
So unfortunately you're experiencing more than just a period of relaxing entertainment, you're also having your senses deadened. Of course the same goes for a good deal of popular music today, with its incessant beat and repetitive lyrics. Guitar player Bob Brozman refers to it as the dumbing effect that stops audiences from thinking.
It's one thing to want to forget about your troubles for a while, to escape reality. But it's another thing altogether to lose your ability to be aware of reality. It's the difference between the person who has a drink after work maybe once or twice a week to unwind, and the alcoholic who drinks to forget everything.
The former is not running away from anything, is only looking for the means to relax somewhat to make it easier to deal with reality. The latter doesn't want to deal with reality for whatever reason and strives to block out all his or her thoughts and ability to feel.
Rid yourself of the feeling that art has nothing to do with reality and is not sturdy enough to face it on it's own. — Erwin Piscator
What old Erwin was talking about when he said that back in the 1920s was specifically the theatre, but it can be applied to art in general. He and Bertolt Brecht were working together on something they called epic theatre with the purpose of mixing reality into the world of theatre. This involved using rear projection screens and other devices that could bring elements of the real world onto the stage with the actors.
Most theatre at the time was highly stylized melodrama that had nothing to do with the circumstances of the world during the 1920s in Germany. Brecht and Piscator attempted to bring to life things like the unrest and poverty in the Weimar Republic at the time and contest the notion that theatre was only for escapism.
Art does not have to be political to be real; it doesn't even have to be realistic in style. But what it needs to do is recreate elements of the human condition with accuracy. Emotional honesty makes an abstract piece of art just as real as a figurative drawing. The most fantastic of stories only works because the author keeps elements of emotional or intellectual reality in it that we can identify with.
Television and the majority of pop culture (I know, generalizing again) are by their very nature unable to depict the mundane because it won't sell. They need to create a world that is beyond reality; that will completely obliterate thought through action, laughter, fright, or any one strong emotion.
Like booze or drugs when too much of that is imbibed, it numbs us to the point where we have no need to think. It no longer becomes a simple matter of temporary escapism but a permanent condition of running away from reality and ourselves. Art, on the other hand, will hold up a mirror of sorts to some part of the human condition, thus giving it a means to connect us with the world at the same time.
We all need to have breaks from our personal reality; without them, our minds could snap like a cheap rubber band. But at the same time, completely running away from life won't make us feel any better in the long run, as we eventually will have to deal with what we've been avoiding.
In my mind this is the advantage that art has over pop culture. It allows us to be carried away from reality without having to surrender our grasp on it at any time.