It would seem hard to imagine a more innocuous subject for discussion than state committees for the humanities.

But for Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and the National Endowment for the Humanities, it has proved an explosive topic.

Three years ago Pell and Ronald S. Berman, then head of the NEH, ended up in a verbal mudfight, exhanging charges of "populism" and "elitism."

Yesterday at a Senate hearing on a new four-year reauthorization for the Endowment, the sparring was much more civilized, but still drew some blood.

"I was abused by almost everyone in the humanities field three years ago," Pell said yesterday of his push to get the federal agency to give more clout to state committees. "It's much better than it was. Movement has been made, but not as much as I intended."

Pell has proposed language that would turn the committees into state committees to have a "high profile," more "visibility," be more accessible to the public and be more of the "woof and warp" of state government - favorite Pell phrases.

Joseph D. Duffey, NEH chairman, and four state council spokesmen forcefully backed administration proposals to keep the status quo. State committees now operate as quasi-independent agencies with a great amount of autonomy even though some appointees are named by state governor under the 1976 legislation.

At stake is control of decisions affecting 20 percent of NEH grants, which amounts to about $22 million a year.

Pell sharply reminded the state committee spokesmen that they "wouldn't be here" if he had heeded the opposition back in 1976.

Norman Fagan, commissioner of culture and history for West Virginia, argued that his state had no money to set up a humanities agency that would cost at least $200,000 to administer. Pell said the state could set up a fundless agency to receive federal funds in the state's name.

The Rhode Island senator, who played a big role in writing the legislation that set up the humanities endowment 14 years ago, also was upset yesterday that NEH doesn't reveal the names of its panelists until after awards are announced.

At the afternoon session, a humanities panel supported the extension of NEH in the reauthorization legislation.

Elspeth Rostow, who is dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Tex., and wife of Walt Rostow, former presidential aide, emphasized that a national humanities endowment is good public policy.

And Georgetown University President Timothy S. Healy called the humanities the "hardcore" of a university and an antidote to the "distressing idea . . . that the university is becoming essentially a gallery or filling station for quick social fixes."