RUSSELL LYNES' The Lively Audience reads like the companion volume to a PBS series, but it isn't. cultural watchdogs, his survey of the modern American arts must stand on its own as history. Stand it does -- but always a bit awkwardly, with the posture of a host rather than a guide.

Subtitled "A Social History of the Visual and Performing Arts in America, 1890- 1950," and published as a contribution to Harper & Row's New American Nation series, The Lively Audience is the 11th book from this 75-year-old chronicler of American culture (The Tastemakers, The Domesticated Americans) and former managing editor of Harper's magazine. Partly drawn from his earlier histories of the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, it offers 11 chapters packed with survey sketches of the Chautauqua movement and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, nickelodeons and early photography, the rise of museums and the fall of Beaux-Arts architecture, the Ash Can School and ragtime -- all softened by the author's cheerful hand-at- your-elbow approach.

Softened, indeed, is the operative word. The Lively Audience avoids rigorous curtain- by-curtain history (ballet and modern dance are largely ignored) and incisive critical scorekeeping. In the best of his earlier books, Lynes played the Yankee patrician poking a stick into his culture, the wry art world mandarin donning his thinking cap (Lynes has served as president or trustee of several arts institutions). Perhaps because it is part of a series, The Lively Audience settles for being a safe textbook rehash of its subject -- an odd package from a man with a distinctive voice. Every page, nonetheless, shows evidence of Lynes' 14 years of research. The insistence of D.W. Griffith's early managers that audiences would not sit still for a 28-minute movie, and the number of film courses in the United States in 1935 (one, at University of Southern California), are the kind of index card items that teach us how assumptions change, and art forms grow. Lynes also studs his narrative with criticism of the day, to remind us of how the critic's taste holds up. The New York Times, he reports, described the landmark 1913 Armory show of artists such as Matisse and Braque as "pathological . . . hideous" and the film theorist Bela Belazs deemed the advent of sound "a catastrophe, the likes of which has never happened in the history of any other art."

DESPITE its title, The Lively Audience pays scant attention to audiences ("Audiences by and large do not want their intellects stimulated or their emotional withers wrung"). It trains its sights on the arts themselves, and, gradually, several of Lynes' larger themes come into focus.

One is that almost every change in the character and size of the arts audience resulted from some "mechanical device." The camera killed portrait painting and the record expanded the music audience. Another is that time tames all art, frequently permitting it to social-climb. Jazz started in the sporting house and ended in the White House. Abstract Expressionism graduated from assaulting the genteel to becoming a coveted artifact of the genteel.

The phenomenon squares well with Lynes' long-standing support for eclecticism in the arts. In his famous chapter "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow" in The Tastemakers, he showed how one generation's highbrow art (e.g. Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray and Black" in the 1870s to 1890s) becomes another's lowbrow art (e.g. 'Whistler's Mother" in the 1940s to 1950s). Similarly, while the larger part of Lynes' time period involves the rebellion against genteel art (described as "eminently suitable to a society that set great store by proper manners, by formalities, traditions, conventions, and social fastidiousness"), he detects shifts in the tide, such as the renewed warmth toward ornament in post-modern architecture. Lynes believes that the tension between high and mass art "has proven to be beneficial" to both.

Yet it is precisely in his m,etier -- the history of American taste -- that Lynes proves most disappointing. He appears to lack either the passion or the critical aparatus for grappling with the changing tastes he reports -- a failing that may stem from a contradiction in his philosophy of art.

On the one hand, Lynes often implies that he accepts the so-called "institutional theory of art" that identifies art with what art institutions recognize as art. Thus he writes that photography's status as an art "seems to have been offically resolved as more and more museums have established collections of photographs." At the same time, alert to the logical consequences that attend the theory -- if it were true, museums could simply put groceries under glass -- he regularly backs off from its relativism. "Like any museum," he writes of the Museum of Modern Art, "the Modern has followed the arts, it has not led them."

Lynes' willingness to fudge the issue leaves the reader critically adrift. One would think that a historian famed for his account of ephemeral taste, yet content to write The Lively Audience from America culture's official 1985 viewpoint (with all the right names in), at least owes the reader a coherent esthetic. For all the information in this book, the debt goes unpaid.

The Lively Audience thus suggests that the epic tale Lynes seems most intent on reciting -- America's slow escape from a sense of cultural inferiority to Europe -- remains unfinished. The arts we inherited from Europe enjoy prestige because of the grand theories Europeans built around them: Romanticism, Art for Arts' Sake, the Bauhaus ethic -- whatever it took to distinguish them from the ordinary activities and objects that the West never interprets, collects, or honors. But The Lively Audience, like the culture it reports, is uncomfortable with theory, the one art that might make sense of its rich yield. The native audience for that, Lynes may realize, remains to be found.