"I know it sounds incredible for anyone in professional wrestling to know anything about the arts, but I do," says James E. Barnett.

He should -- because President Carter has nominiated the Atlanta businessman and campaign contributor to a place on the National Council on the Arts.

Barnett, 55, is a wrestling promoter. He's also a promoter of the Atlanta Symphony, the Georgia Council on the Arts, the National Symphony Orchestra -- and his idol is playwright Eugene O'Neill.

And if the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee confirms Barnett's nomination, he will join choreographer Jerome Robbins, piianist Van Cliburn and others on the 26-member National Council advisory board. The Council advises the National Endowment for the Arts, and has final review of the project applications.

"Jim has done tons of activities with arts in Atlanta," says Mary Ann Tighe, deputy chair for programs at the NEA. "He does make his money on wrestling, but I think he spends more time on his volunteer activities."

Barnett was drawn to the arts before the ring. He went to the University of Chicago, hoping to be a playwright. "I wasn't that good," he says. But after graduation in 1948, watching wrestling on television made him realize it was big business. He wrote a promoter in Chicago asking for a job, and got one writing press releases.

Thirty years later, he is president of Georgia Championship Wrestling in Atlannta, president of Championship Wrestling in Tampa, Fla., and president of Southeastern Wrestling Corp. In Knoxville. It was afforded him a good living. "Wrestling has been good to me," he says.

Vincent McMahon, one of the East Coast's largest wrestling promoters, calls Barnett "an outstanding promoter -- probably the best in the country."

"He's always talking about the arts," says McMahon, who estimated he sees Barnett about once a month. "He's quite a fellow."

"Everyone in the arts can't be an artist," Barnett says. So he's done everything else -- including fund-raising for the Atlanta Symphony and sitting on its board, being a national trustee of the National Symphony Orchestra, being a board member of the Georgia Council on the Arts and Humanities, and -- for the past year and a half -- a member of the advisory panel on NEA's music program.

"I have partners who do things for me," Barnett says. "I don't go to wrestling matches very often anymore -- maybe once a month. But I try to see a play, go to a ballet or a concert almost every day."

"I've found him wise and professional," says Livingston Biddle, chairman of the NEA. "He has contyributed [on the music advisory panel] his knowledge of the arts and that's in line with what the other citizen leaders on the National Council contribute. I have great respect for him."

Barnett had also contributed to various Georgia politicians, including Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Rep. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.) and Gov. George Busbee, as well as President Carter -- to whom Barnett gave $1,000 in the 1976 presidential campaign, and another $1,000 for the current contest.

"My God, no, I'm sure this isn't a political nomination," he said of Carter's sponsorship. "I think it's because I'm capable."

If confirmed, Barnett will technically only serve until September, since his appointment is to fill out the rest of a six-year term vacated early. s

Barnett expects no problems being confirmed. "I know the arts," he said.

There are people who own parking lots who become political officials." Barnett said of his nomination: "I had hoped for this for years."