Nancy Reagan, smiling sweetly, yesterday shook hands with painter Richard Bosman and then graciously examined his scenes of gore and mayhem hanging on the walls.

She had come to preview "The First Annual Awards in the Visual Arts Exhibition," the committee-chosen group show that opens tomorrow to the public at the National Museum of American Art. This nation's art establishment, so this show suggests, is newly happy with the hideous. Far too many of its objects make the awful seem acceptable, the terrifying tame.

In one of Bosman's paintings a dismembered corpse burns gaily while the ax murderer responsible strides into the night. An unlucky gambler, whose purple suit goes nicely with the bright red of his blood, lies dead in another. Nancy Reagan seemed most taken by Bosman's biggest picture, "Pursuit at the Beach," which shows a killer with a butcher knife chasing a young woman into pounding surf.

"You must love the sea," said Nancy Reagan to the painter. "This is wonderful! Good luck!"

Her apparent lack of shock was not at all surprising. Despite some gruesome images, this show is deeply cushioned. Its artists are not bad--some of them are fine--but they swaddle one another until their work seems dull. This exhibition sags. Two things drag it down.

The first is its deep caution. The second is its effort to disguise that caution with art that aims to jolt.

But what should one expect from an exhibition chosen by an army? This is how it was picked: 10 "nationally prominent professionals" first formed a committee; they then asked "520 artists, curators, directors and critics living and working in every state in the country" to nominate candidates for the awards; yet another committee, this one composed of 100 nominators, then whittled down the list until they agreed on 480 nominees; then another committee--this one had 12 members--selected the 10 winners, one from each of 10 regions of the country. Then and only then was a single curator, Harry Rand of the museum, asked to pick the show. No wonder it looks safe.

The 10 winners are: Terry Allen, Richard Bosman, Douglas Bourgeois, Marsha Burns, Edward C. Flood, Maurie Kerrigan, Michael Luchs, Stephen Schultz, Richard Shaffer and Michael Singer.

The $300,000 contest was run by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art of Winson Salem, N.C. Those who paid the bills--the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts--had admirable motives. Young, emerging artists do need exhibitions, encouragement and cash, and those who made it won $15,000 each. But there is nothing flatter than a show that takes no chances.

If you've opened an art magazine in the last six months you can guess what this show looks like. It has a little scary funk (Bourgeois), some fine sharp focus realism (Shaffer), some site art (Singer), some rusted metal sculpture (Luchs), some witty pseudo-mythic icons (Kerrigan), some homage to a master (Schultz, to Balthus), some good painted wall-hung sculpture (Flood), and, of course, some video (Allen). Bosman's images are memorable, but here they must stand in for all the new expressionist paintings of comic strip violence being ground out in New York. Burns' handsome portrait photographs are slow, august and subtle, but here she seems to represent a nation of photographers. It seems these artists were selected less for talent than for type.

Perhaps because their show inevitably seems compromised, the jury has displayed its guts by reiterating the violence now bubbling beneath so much U.S. art. It seems timid because its menace feels less menacing than fashionable. Wrestlers wrestle violently in Allen's video; fishes bleed and black dogs snarl in Kerrigan's icons; nurses with blue reptilian skin, black claws and syringes lurk among the snakes in one of Bourgeois' paintings; Luchs' mean rusted wires and seared and peeling surfaces suggest the threat of tetanus; Flood, in honor of the poison mushroom, calls one series of his sculptures "Amanita." No one will be surprised to discover a straight razor beneath Schultz's painted chair.

There are winners in this show. Shaffer is an honest, first-rate realist; Flood's sinuous painted sculpture is original, menacing and joyous. Burns' photographs are fine, the Kerrigans are delightful. Bourgeois is nicely creepy, Bosman nicely bold. These artists have integrity, but this exhibition blurs it. It will travel to Des Moines and Denver after closing here Aug. 8.