While I was trying to fall asleep last night, I pondered the ups and downs of the artistic life and the image of a seesaw popped into my head along with the question, “Why can’t I just stay balanced in the middle?” Art can be such a serious pursuit, so in the interest of some levity I thought I’d explore the metaphor a bit more. While I’m typing this, “The Doctor” (see blog header) is bent on licking the blinds of the window right in front of my computer for no apparent reason, providing some humor on his own except for the fact that every time I pull him away and set him down on the floor, he hops back up again. Come on kitty, have some dignity! Sheesh.
Anyway, while thinking of seesaws, I was reminded that when I was a child and frequently visited the playground, I was afraid of them. My dad or some other adult, two or three times my weight, would inevitably be sitting on the other end and so I was hoisted all the way up into the air with the sense I might not ever be allowed to come down. (Note to parents: are those exclamations from your kids at the playground squeals of delight, or squeals of terror? Don’t always assume the former). The boards that made up the seesaw were always painted some bright color like blue or green or orange, but were weathered and faded like an old wooden boat. They inspired as much confidence in the safety of the seesaw as the swing sets whose feeble metal poles rose out of the ground a few inches when you pumped your legs really hard and jerked on the chains.
The business of art and music is very much like hanging out at a creepy playground at dusk. You know, the kind of playground you see in movies where death is represented by the empty swing, moving back and forth in an eerie breeze. The kind of playground where an old newspaper blows up against your leg, significantly, and you realize it’s a paper from fifty years ago, when the park first opened. You hear the sounds of children playing all around you, but when you look, no one is there. The bells of an ice cream truck ring out, but when you cross the lawn to the vehicle on the corner you realize it’s just an unmarked white van, and the bell sound came from a crow pecking at some garbage. That sort of playground.
When you enter the playground with your portfolio or your album or your manuscript, you sit down on the seesaw and wait. Maybe you are meeting a record producer there, an art collector, or a magazine editor. Sometimes no one comes to meet you at all, even if you’ve exchanged a multitude of emails and they’ve expressed enthusiasm for your work. If you are lucky, the figure that meets you will sit down on the other end of the seesaw and calmly elevate you into the air, praising your work and offering an opportunity of publication, or a gallery show, or a performance at a well known venue. When the meeting is over, they’ll gently let you down and you’ll head back to the studio, quietly optimistic.
Many times, however, you will find that your meeting is spent with the industry figure tilted towards the skies, and with every proclamation they make about how important they are, how little they will offer you for your work, and how happy you should be to license everything to them for that elusive promise of “exposure”, your side of the seesaw will dig further and further into the ground. When you are thoroughly mired in the mud, they’ll hop off and run merrily away to the next artist, and you’ll be stuck with the dilemma of how to balance the need to create with the very real prospect of losing your sanity.
Perhaps the most dangerous seesaw encounter you can have at this proverbial playground, is a meeting with someone who brings extraordinary news. They dash towards you, leaping onto the seesaw with such aplomb that you go flying off into the air. Everything about this figure signifies the “big break” you’ve been looking for – an agent that will eliminate your need to book yourself, a curator paying an amount for a painting equivalent to a year’s rent, a critic trumpeting a great review of your work in a national magazine. It is possible that the “big break” can change your career permanently for the better, but in your quick ascent there is a certain vulnerability. The likelihood is that you’ll have to come down. Will there be someone in the industry to catch you? Or will you find yourself tumbling, dazed, back to the same place you started?
So how to, as I wondered last night, “stay balanced in the middle?” It seems to me that every time you bring your art out into the world to be judged, every time you visit the creepy playground where dreams are uplifted and shattered with indifferent regularity, you need to also bring a friend. An imaginary friend, just like when you were a kid. Your imaginary friend needs to be the pragmatic counter to your wild optimism, or the exuberance to your despondence, depending on your mood, depending on the day. No matter who you meet down at the playground seesaw within the larger teeters and totters of your career, your imaginary friend must climb on too. Shifting their weight while straddling the middle, they’ll be the ballast that ensures that your feet will never be far from the ground, allowing you to walk right back into your studio at the end of the day, to close the door to the business, and get back to the art.