"There is no mandatory retirement age in the Arts," Joan Mondale, the honorary chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, yesterday told members of the human services subcommittee of the House Select Committee on Aging.

Mondale was one of 18 people giving testimony at a hearing on "Arts and Older Americans." They wanted arts brought to elderly people and elderly people actively involved in the arts. A great many elderly are already involved in the arts, Mondale said:

"Georgia O'Keeffe, the dean of American painters, is 92. Louise Nevelson, a mere 80 years old, recently completed the Louise Nevelson Sculpture Park in New York City. Martha Graham, at age 86, continues to inspire audiences with the most creative modern dance in America . . ."

"One of the Endowment's major goals is making the arts available to as many people as possible in firm belief that the arts greatly enhance the quality of life for all people, regardless of age," said Livingston Biddle, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He noted that the NEA provides technical assistance to people developing projects for such special constituencies as the elderly.

Theodore Bikel, an active member of the National Council on the Arts and president of Actors' Equity Association, suggested that Congress amend the Social Security Act, which penalizes workers over 60 -- including artists, whose work is often sporadic -- for continuing to work.

Much of the testimony was intended to dispel the myth that old age always means frailty -- and that participation by older people in the arts should be limited to "basket weaving and paint blowing through straws," as one witness at the hearing put it.

"I've seen stroke victims overcome the nonuse of limbs to participate in dance," said Michael J. Spencer, executive director of Hospital Audiences, Inc. in New York City.

But art for older people is more than just "therapeutic," said Dorothy Rawson, 74, one of a group of actors (ranging in age from 67 to 81) who make up Free Street Too, a professional traveling theater group based in Chicago. They have performed for colleges, conferences on aging, senior citizen groups and nursing homes as well as young people.

"My husband, a mechanical engineer who retired at the age of 76, was literally dragged into this program by our daughter," said Rawson. "He went, protesting all the way that he never had and never possibly could do anything like this. She persisted, and we found through the development of this program hidden features of his personality -- that even I, after 50 years of marriage, had never known. Through this training, he now has a whole career in the theater. He has a part in Ibsen's 'Enemy of the People' now playing at the Goodman Theater in Chicago."