The almost year-long debate over the National Endowment for the Arts is drawing to a close; Congress will soon have to decide the endowment's future, if it is to have one.

If the endowment goes down, and curtains fall on ballet workshops and chamber music concerts across the length and breadth of America, a number of prominent journalists, most of whom work within walking distance of the Kennedy Center or other cultural fountains, will have much to answer for; a just punishment would be to chain them to their television sets and force them to watch Merv Griffin (and nothing else) forever.

I'm referring to such prominent art critics as Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Patrick Buchanan, James J. Kilpatrick and others of similar ilk. How nice to be so wise that one doesn't even have to go look at a piece of art or a performance before ridiculing it in a column. How apt that Evans and Novak chose to smear Karen Finley with disdain because she smears herself with chocolate; of course they didn't bother to go see whether her smearing works; nor, I suspect, have any of these columnists gone to see the work of such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano. Why go to the trouble to park and hunt up an actual artwork, when Sen. Jesse Helms or the Rev. Donald Wildman will see that you get pictures in the mail?

One would think it would shame these well-educated men to ally themselves with the most ignorant of the direct-mail lobbyists; one would think it would trouble them to weaken an endowment that could more justly be criticized for being mild and cautious for 25 years rather than the wanton thing it has lately been made to seem.

But whether mild or wanton, the NEA has undeniably brought the heart-lifting delight of art to many millions of Americans who otherwise would have been left with the pablums the networks feed them, and the fact remains that some of the most respected journalists in America have indulged themselves in a year of cheap shots, unsupported by even the most casual legwork.

Suppose I wrote a column describing the Mona Lisa as just a rather smoky picture of an overweight lady who needs to get her teeth fixed. Only those who have seen the painting itself would know how grossly reductive I had been. Now, Evans and Novak, Buchanan and Kilpatrick could easily see Finley, Mapplethorpe and Serrano then they could at least provide firsthand reports -- i.e, journalism -- to the millions of Americans who don't live near the art capitals and can't easily see these artists for themselves. But the journalists haven't done this, and there is no reason for their lazy opinions to be received with any respect at all; the artists, throughout, have been more serious about what they do.

A simple point needs to be reasserted here: only art is art; all descriptions of it are reductive. George Will writes very well about baseball (and he actually goes to games); still, a ballgame is a lot more involving than a column about one. The same point applies to Serrano, Mapplethorpe and Finley.

Of all the artists to come under attack this year Serrano has been the most abused and the least well defended, all because the NEA partially funded a show containing his now-infamous sculpture "Piss Christ." What a hoot this has been for everyone: a crucifix immersed in urine! How could it possibly be art? How did it ever get funded? Scores of nickel Menckens have rushed to heap scorn on this sculpture, without, of course, having seen it.

I say, go look at it before you say it isn't art. You might be surprised by the object itself. Photographs won't do; descriptions in newspapers won't do either: you have to look at it, as you should at any art object. Looked at, you might see it as the troubled but intelligent response of a religion-obsessed artist to the degradation of religion into televangelical religiosity in the age of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, et al.

Looked at, you might perceive Mapplethorpe's darker photographs as the work of an artist who was as interested in hell as Dante, Milton, Bosch and many others before him. Go to the National Gallery, look at some Breughels, look at Bosch, look at Goya and then reflect on whether Mapplethorpe can really be said to have gone too far.

Finally, go see Finley; of course, you now may have to go abroad to see her. The United States Information Agency can export her, but the NEA will no longer have her at home. See if you think her efforts to dramatize the experience of an unconventional woman in this society do not reflect rather wittily on the way she was treated in the pages of this newspaper.

Well, okay, interesting stuff, the columnists might say, but why can't these folks do it with their own money? In fact, most of the artists attacked this year did do it with their own money; it was the institutions that later chose to present the results of their self-financed efforts that got funded.

If as a result of this year of paltry discourse on arts funding the people in the heart of the country, where there is no Kennedy Center, do lose their ballet workshops and their chamber music, their lives will have been lessened, and I hope some of their anger will be directed at the columnists who didn't bother to go see what they made free to criticize. It is the columnists who have cheated the public, not the artists. All we expected the columnists to produce on this important question was responsible journalism; what they have given us instead is mainly mouthwash.

The writer, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, is president of the international writers' organization, PEN American Center.