Counting Out Fairness

April 06, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Numerical quotas have come under much criticism -- well deserved -- in the areas of hiring, academic admission and political representation. The desirable goals of fairness and inclusion are made harder to reach when rigid numbers cut across the flexibility and specific adjustments called for.

Thomas Jefferson, attempting to construct a fair educational system, created a quota of students that could be advanced from each lower district for higher education. This was absurd on its face. What if one district lacked many superior students in a particular year, while another was overstocked with them? Mediocre students would advance from the first area, while brilliant ones were held back in the second.

These reflections do not apply only to personnel decisions. A by-the-numbers approach can be as foolish in financial decisions. As governor, Ronald Reagan tried to cut the budget of all of California's agencies by the same percent. This would have crippled programs already on the margin of existence and done little to those whose budget was more than sufficient to their tasks. Case-by-case cuts are harder to make, but they are more sensible in terms of real tasks being performed.

One of the sillier quotas imposed by governments, at various levels, was meant to reach the reasonable goal of making our public buildings the objects of aesthetic as well as civic pride. It was legislated that some fixed percent of expenditures on buildings should be dedicated to art. The fact that the percentages legislated were usually low did not make them insignificant, since the costs of large public buildings often run into the millions.

The City Council of Culver City, California, has tried to evade such a law, one that devotes 1 percent of expenditure for public buildings to art. ''Art'' is usually applied to paintings or sculpture or woven decoration. The Culver City Council has argued that the architecture of a building can itself be considered art, and the quota can be taken from its design costs.

Frank Lloyd Wright would have been an ardent defender of that position. He often designed his buildings so as to preclude the hanging of pictures or decorating of landscapes in any way but the one he had programmed into the building's overall design.

It is hard to see how anyone can oppose the Culver City position. The alternative is to declare the building itself non-art. The spirit of the law would then dictate that one raise a perfectly ugly building, the better to distinguish it from the artistic jewels pinned to its non-aesthetic facade.

Yet Tom Finkelpearl of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs deplores the Culver City action, saying, ''Art and architecture are different professions.'' I did not know that art is a general profession. If it is, it presumably includes things as different as tapestry-weaving and electronic signals (all things included in past art percentages) yet would exclude a Frank Lloyd Wright.

The aim of the laws about public buildings was to create beautiful buildings. The most important part of that program is precisely the choice of artistic design and designer. When it argues otherwise, the art world is trivializing its own values to save a few sculptors' commissions.

It is good to consider the folly of quotas across several different areas in order to clarify just what is wrong with them -- not the goals, but the severely mathematical methods. Where even Thomas Jefferson could err, we need to think carefully about these matters.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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