Taped to the side of the stairway was a list of 100 artists imprisoned in Argentina; in the living room: a tasteful mixture of contemporary art and a well-heeled tweedy group of people who had a slightly artsy flair to their clothing.

"One of the functions of art -- other than beautifying people's homes -- has always been as a critic or an innovator of new ideas," said sculptor Jim Crane to a roomful of people, "and ideas are more threatening to repressive regimes than guns."

Most of the guests who squeezed into the Chevy Chase home of Cynthia and David Birnbaum (artist and lawyer, respectively) last night either felt that way or were the friends of people who felt that way. It was a coming out party of sorts for AIDA, a group that publicizes the plight of artists imprisoned by governments for their politics or for simply speaking out against the governments. The initials stand for French words that translate as: International Association for the Defense of Artists.

"We're involved in the education of the American public and letting governments who do have artists imprisoned know that the American public is concerned," said Alex Karmel, a novelist who runs a family business and is on the board of directors of AIDA. His wife, Marianne Marcellin, an actress, is the president of the local organization (barely a year old), an offshoot of the parent AIDA in France.

Among those on the AIDA list of prisoners: "One poet and painter from South Africa -- Breyten Breytenback," said Marcellin. "One poet, Ahmed Fouad Negm in Egypt. . . . He has been in prison many times. In and out, in and out, in and out."

Guests included attorney Ira Lowe, who has done legal work for AIDA. "The cultural people are always the first hit in these repressive regimes," he said.

Lowe called Olga Hirshhorn and persuaded her to come last night. "They're trying to get me on the board," said Hirshhorn, tanned from Florida, who added that she would do what she could for them. "I was introduced to the whole idea an hour ago," she said, chuckling. "Ira called and asked me to come. I said, 'I have a dinner at 8:30.' He said, 'We'll have you back by then.' "