There was a time not so long ago when we could enjoy television shows “about nothing.” Movies with no pretense at being about something. And Facebook posts about dogs — so many dogs — dogs eating oatmeal cookies off the counter or digging up daffodils or sweetly wrapping one of their doggy paws around their doggy pal’s head. I miss that.
In the pre-Trumpian age, I could care deeply about politics and also feel fine about escaping from it. I could chant at a rally by day and watch “Nashville” with abandon at night.
But now the president, the former reality TV star, ironically seems hellbent on ruining escapist entertainment.
Trump might as well sign an executive order proclaiming, “Entertainment for its own sake and as a necessary escape will no longer be considered a legitimate form of pleasure in the homeland.” (And then proudly show off the order, contained in one of those leather binders that the comedian Bill Maher likens to a menu at Beefsteak Charley’s.)
Even without such a proclamation, the damage has been done. In my case, I’ve been hoping for months to visit the Monet gallery at the MFA and inhale the peace and serenity that Monet’s sun-dappled ocean waves evoke. Instead, the only art I’ve seen since Trump’s inauguration was a striking installation called Pussy Tower by Christina Zwart at the Boston Sculptors Gallery. One of the few movies I’ve been to is the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” about the eloquent, prescient writer James Baldwin. The only classic literature I’ve (re)read is “1984,” which, 68 years after its publication, became an Amazon bestseller in the United States this past January. The only television I’ve considered must-see TV were the James Comey and Jeff Sessions congressional hearings.
Yet, every now and then watching an episode of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” might be nice, right?
If you’re feeling similarly torn between the need to remain vigilantly political and the desire to indulge in easy entertainment, imagine the dilemma facing today’s writers and artists. Is it OK to make a gross-out comedy or write a romance novel during times like these, when members of Congress are getting shot at on a baseball field and millions of Syrian refugees are suffering?
Orwell would say no — or at least he wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so. In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell described his longing to write for ego satisfaction and the love of words versus his overpowering sense of duty to write for “political purpose. ” He defined this as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
Given all he’d lived through — both world wars, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Nazism and fascism, and the deaths, through war or extermination, of millions of people — is it any surprise Orwell made the choice to devote himself to penning works with a political message? As he wrote, “It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”
Well, it may be nonsense to want to create or enjoy a work that’s apolitical today, but, then again, a bit of nonsense might be just what the therapist should order. The mind and soul need some R&R every now and then, a vacation from cable news shoutfests and information overload and message-driven literature.
I believe political art is essential. It can help make the world a better place by creating awareness about injustices, changing people’s hearts and minds, and galvanizing them to take direct political action.
But, for tonight, I’m going to collapse into the couch, free my mind of worries about the current resident of the White House, and watch episode after episode of my favorite show from another, more innocent era, the show that’s blessedly about nothing: “Seinfeld.”
Meta Wagner is author of “What’s Your Creative Type?: Harness the Power of Your Artistic Personality.”