Thank God! Whenever I become vaguely alarmed that I'm turning into some sort of reactionary snob, along comes someone like Lewis H. Lapham of Harper's magazine to remind me of what the real article sounds like. Laphamm's recent op-ed piece had an intriguing headline about patronizing Ameria's mediocre arts, and his lead rejoiced decorously about the presumed slashing of federal funding for the arts.

I was not instantly outraged. Like many a taxpayer, I have seethed over the stories of federal monies being used so that someone could drop colored paper from an airplane or sculpt geometric forms out of chopped chicken liver. I am not part of an esthetic establishment. I do not rush to hear the latest John Cage-like composition for bicycle-pump-and-random-barking-dogs. Campbell's soup cans on canvas do not excite me. I am, from time to time, professionally involved in public broadcasting, so I will not even try to defend subsidizing the eletronic media. Let's stick with the traditional art forms which received most of Lapham's brickbats.

His thrust is that the government cannot turn an American sow's ear into a cultural silk purse, because we have some strange native inability to create great art. We are, he concedes, brillant interpreters and performers. (Watch them Yanks dance and sing, them happy-go-lucky devils!) To prove our failure in fiction-writing, for instance, he cites Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, which is a little like evaluating the American family by citing Howard Hughes and Hugh Hefner.

Lapham's own magazine (subsidized by a millionaire's money) could have reminded him of names such as John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Katherine Anne Porter, John Barth and scores of other writers (as opposed to self-promoting celebrities). Do they match up to Balzac or to Thomas Hardy? Come back in a century and I'll let you know. Were they subsidized, you may ask? I'll venture that a fair number went to subsidized universities and received grants from tax-exempt foundations. The point is, if you wish to help a Cheever or a John Didion, you do have to risk subsidizing a fair number of near-misses, failures, even a lot of pretentious phonies. Chaff always outweighs the grain.

Lapham heaps most scorn on the federal aid to "potters, weavers, dancers," etc., and concludes that a "thousand pianists who can get through the Beethoven sonatas" haven't improved the tasteless American audience. How many of us, he demands sternly, can read a book in a foreign language, or differentiate between a Rostropovitch or a Casals playing the same piece?

All of which makes me a little unhappy, because I am apparently the kind of baby he is happy to throw out with the federal bath water. I love music, but I really can't tell Horowitz from Rubinstein. I have occasionally said with some confidence, "That's not Walter Gieseking playing 'Children's Corner Suite,' that's someone else!" (I've had that Gieseking record for over 20 years.) But somehow I feel I'm still the kind of audience member who just might be worth developing further, even if I can't tell Glenn Gould from Van Cliburn. Because I wans't born to be an esthete. I grew up in a world where the children of truck drivers, clerk and janitors were supposed to grow up to do the same jobs that their parents did, read the sports page and listen to the Top Forty. Period. No potters or weavers, just us grunts. I was exposed to "culture" through subsidized school orchestras, later in free city colleges. My first serious theatrical experience was watching Jose Ferrer do a magnificent Cyrano at the subsidized City Center. (It later went to Broadway.) My first Shakespearean stage exposure was seeing an unknown George C. Scott do an electrifying "Richard III." The young producer Joseph Papp, was certainly subsidized.

Clearly, the arts will survive, with or without a National Endowment for the Arts or Humanities. But without them, the growth of an audience for the arts outside the major cities will be slowed. I think that's too bad even though Lapham does not , even if much of that audience might not know Van Dyck from Van Gogh or tell Serkin from Ashkenazy. They have learned that there's something better than Mantovani or Motown; they've seen a little Shakespeare, a little Brecht, and that sure beats a full-time diet of "Knott's Landing" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." We haven't become a nation of esthetes, but many more of our citizens lead a richer cultural life today than they did a generaion ago. If Lapham will just give Americans a few more years, we might start reading books in a foreign language. We might even start reading Harper's.