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Since the early summer and the "obscene" Mapplethorpe and Serrano art exhibits, which caused a political confrontation, perception of the National Endowment for the Arts has taken some disagreeable turns. There is even a feeling that with reauthorization of its tenure looming in 1990, the NEA is in a struggle for continued existence. Some even suggest that a spin-off effect may endanger the tax-supported arts councils in all 50 states.

At its inception in 1966, the position of the NEA seemed clearcut: that a certain number of tax dollars should be spent on the arts, with awards decided by peer panels and councils within the Endowment, and that much of it should go to assist existing major organizations about the country.

Most people would agree that in the early days of the Endowment, idealism ran high, with good allocation of its small funds. But the Mapplethorpe problem has called into question decisions made by this agency, and even its reason for being.

In an article in the Boston Globe, Jeff McLaughlin asked many arts authorities to express their feelings regarding the position of the NEA. The following quotes suggest that there are as many attitudes about the NEA's purpose and discharging of its obligations as there are people to express them.

McLaughlin says the NEA sees itself as designed to foster excellence in the arts, through nurturing freedom of thought and adventuruous creative expression; and by expanding the opportunities for all Americans to enrich their lives by experiencing great art, old and new. They feel they need much more public money, and they defend the success of their process of making awards on the basis of constant peer review of applying organizations.

Robert Brustein, a leading spokesman for the left-leaning establishment, feels that the climate for the arts is bad right now, surrounded by hostility, with support at the state level in peril also. He feels the Endowment could sink to the level of a National Endowment for Arts and Crafts, or an Endowment for European Culture, or could even be voted out of existence.

Samuel Lipman, publisher of the arts journal New Criterion, disagrees with Brustein. "The arts aren't what's in trouble; the rationale for the NEA as it has evolved is dead," he said. "The NEA is in the position of defending the expenditure of tax dollars for mere self-expression and entertainment. These should not be funded by the NEA.

"The state's only valid role in the arts world is as the transmitter of tradition. As Burke said," Lipman continued, referring to 18th-century political theorist Edmund Burke, "the state is a compact formed by the living to link those who are dead with those who are yet unborn."

A very large segment of populists feel that the NEA focuses on traditional white, western, European-rooted high art that largely benefits social and cultural elites. They call for recognition of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and other traditions in forging a uniquely American culture, and feel that the NEA budget should be expanded to meet these purposes.

From the right, the religious fundamentalists and their allies attack support for the avant garde and experimental art, and insist the NEA might better support such traditional culture as major institutions and museums, symphony orchestras and ballets. They also prefer budget cuts.

Public subsidy of the arts was established in the United States long after it was policy in all the other industrial nations. It was with the New Frontier and Great Society presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson that such support started to be seen as a public responsibility.

The rationales were that art is a nation's most precious heritage, that contemporary artists are a national asset to be nurtured, and that a democratic society should promote the widest possible participation of its citizens in its cultural life.

Under Nixon and Ford the NEA budget soared from its initial $2.5 million to a high of $150 million in 1978-79. Now it levels out around this year's $169 million, lagging behind the rate of inflation.

Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and director of the Institute of Religion and Public Life in New York City, suggests discussion of the philosophical theoretical and political bases for the very idea of government support for the arts.

He suggests that perhaps like religion, art is too personal and important for the state to interfer at all. "Is the artistic community engaged in a denigration of its own enterprise by accepting government support?" he suggests.

Edward Arian, professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, was also for 20 years a bass player for the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

In his new book, "The Unfulfilled Promise: Public Subsidy of the Arts in America," he suggsts the existence of three cultures in American arts. First, the "performance culture" of highly professional, well-established organizations that caters to small elite segments of the population.; second, the "creative culture" of living creative artists who work with marginal financial support and small exposure; and "community arts" - the thousands of small arts organizations, serving ordinary citizens, children, ethnic and racial groups.

He suggests a reversal of the current trend toward giving to big organizations, and that cultural democracy should build instead on "the foundations" of creative culture and community arts.

"Federal support for the arts is a grain of sand in the overall budget, because our priorities are cockeyed," said Arian. "And of that tiny amount, most goes to support Big Daddy's culture and at most bring it to the unwashed masses. That just isn't acceptable any more," he said.

But the real fight may be in the political arena. U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., as chairman of the subcommittee on select education, will conduct hearings next year on whether to extend the life of the agency.

The rationales were that art is a nation's most precious heritage, that contemporary artists are a national asset to be nurtured.

expression and the undeniable right of Americans to decide how their tax dollars are going to be spent."

Leonard Garment, who worked with the NEA during the 1970s, believes that it is "very important, especially in the context of a staggering, punch-drunk educational system in this country, that the NEA survive and develop an arts curriculum, and build toward a funding level of $250 million, a benchmark figure in a world that lives by benchmarks."

Politically, he feels that extremes of left and right must be avoided, to prevent such cataclysmic occurrences as the Serrano and Mapplethorpe exhibits.

"On that ground," Garment said, "I come down on the conservative side: A strong argument can be made for the lion's share of the NEA budget being expended on the great works of art, the established orchestras and museums that have a record. You must recognize constituency pressures, and I would not have contemporary arts abandoned, but the new, the avant-garde, the experimental should be the responsibility of private institutions, and community-based culture should be in the domain of local initiative, not national policy."