Jonathan Yardley [Style, Oct. 12] attacked the recommendaJ tion of the Task Force on the Arts and Humanities that the activities of the National Endowments continue with federal funding without substantial alteration. He charged the culture with being out of step with the times. And he described the times as being a pure marketplace accompanied by cuts in the safety net for the poor, reduced school lunches and food stamps, and elimination of unemployment training.

Yet, as widely known, the pure marketplace does not even exist for the rich and big business -- just look at the tax structure, government subsidies and defense spending. Support for the arts at the expense of the poor is not being advocated. To suggest this is a red herring. The sum of arts and humanities funding is a trivial piece of the total pie.

Yardley asks what claim the artists have even in the best of times? He seems unaware of the source of innovation in human history and naive about the purpose and function of the arts. The survival of any society depends upon the infusion of ideas and the existence of safety valves to cope with changing environments. Since early humankind, we have evidence of the use of the arts to help individuals and groups explore the spectrum of possibilities for organizing society.

Without NEA-funded Artists-in-School, Artists-in-Residence or such Media Arts programs as the "Dance in America" TV series, many people throughout the country would not have had access to a variety of arts. Exposure leads not only to spectators' reflections, but there are also economic spin-offs, such as new private class enrollments, teaching positions and arts-supply stores.

Both reflecting and influencing society, the arts are a vital way for people to communicate ideas, feelings, values and identities in the attempt to cope with their problems. The arts glorify, scrutinize and frame human concerns. The arts are "safe" arenas to play with the dangerous and to explore the unknown without the consequences of real-life risks and failures. Local communities and nations use the arts to support their identities. Witness the government support of and pride in the arts of nations far less endowed than the United States. Furthermore, the arts provide what economists call "agglomeration effects," i.e., they stimulate supply and support facilities and services, promote tourism, generate jobs, attract residents and enhance real estate.

In times of national crises, it is especially important for a government to support the free exchange of ideas. Some of the arts cannot survive without support. The costs of live performances continually escalate; ticket prices correspondingly increase and reduce access to the arts for many. The rising productivity per person-hour in nonartistic spheres of the economy is not matched in the arts, and performances no longer pay for themselves. Competitive salaries for artists in an inflationary economy are necessary to encourage their continuance in the arts; they are not forthcoming.

In our pluralistic country, only a very few individuals and groups have gotten artistic patronage. Yet the marginal, avant-garde and folk arts are critical to national growth and development as well as to the established elite arts themselves. It is often the marginal rather than the popular marketplace creations that ultimately meet the test of time as enduring artistic accomplishments. History bears testimony to the poor recognition many artists received during their lives.

Although the endowments' budgets are small compared with those of other agencies, they have had a significant impact. Their policies provide models and inspiration for other funding sources -- state and local governments as well as private enterprise -- especially for activities not previously supported. It is important to recognize the general goals and contributions of the endowments apart from some of their specific practices and awards.

In our highly industrialized and troubled society, people seek the talismanic quality of human creation and inspiration. The arts and humanities have historically offered imaginative vision in simpler societies. The endowments can assist us now to keep this heritage alive.