New role for plow

Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the News & Review.

The other day I drove home from the Skyway business area via Park Avenue and thus noticed for the umpteenth time the so-called artwork that is supposed to suggest a plow and thus the importance of agriculture in this area. I wondered for the umpteenth time if I would ever get used to it, acknowledging the negative answer even as I pondered.

The so-called plow generated controversy when it was created some six years ago. If memory serves, most critics thought it a meaningless entity that expressed nothing agricultural to the casual beholder.

Not one out of a million strangers driving into town by way of Park Avenue would think this jumble of rocks and metal was meant to greet them and send them a message. Not one would say something like, “Wow, what a great piece of modern representational art! It obviously stands for a plow that in turn stands for the agricultural nature and heritage of this area.”

Reasonable people, meaning the general public, don’t care for such esoteric symbolism. They believe good art must speak for itself, that its beauty or meaning must stand out clearly. If somebody must explain what a piece of art “means,” it is not art. Indeed, the artwork on Park Avenue is something like a Rorschach ink-blot test.

Other critics could not understand how this artwork could possibly be worth the $140,000 it cost. I’m among those baffled by the price tag. Such art is worth little unless some community or other entity decides to commission it for an outlandish fee, which is the case with much public art in Chico.

The fact is that most art has a small open market or street value; the artist must be famous or have a sponsor before his or her work escalates in value. It’s always been that way with artists having patrons.

My late brother, an artist of no mean ability, created a pastel work that he entered in the state fair in the 1980s in competition with artists from the Bay Area and Southern California. Although his work placed in the judging, the most he was offered for it was $500. The value of the pastel probably would have zoomed into the thousands had he offered to sell it to the city.

The plow on Park Avenue is an obvious failure in its mission. It should be relocated to the chess playing area in the new Downtown Plaza Park with a 4-foot-high brass version of Rodin’s The Thinker joined to it. The plow and statue would combine to mean very deep thinking, as in chess. A plaque could explain.