Henry Mitchell asserted {Style, Aug. 31} that for the government "to then deny an approved artist the little money he needs to do his work is just as efficient a censorship measure as outlawing his work."

Contrary to this view, I believe the establishment of state-approved and state-supported artists encourages aesthetic conformity in pursuit of the cash and cachet that would come with official approval. Artists no less than others have lent themselves to sordid purposes.

Approved artists have been a feature of totalitarian regimes. Their accomplishments have had transitory political significance but little artistic merit, while the non-approved (and sometimes actively disapproved) have made great contributions to world culture. For every Sholokhov there are countless Solzhenitsyns, Pasternaks and Bulgakovs. In the performing arts, which Mr. Mitchell addresses, it is as hard to think of a gifted approved artist in Nazi Germany as it is impossible to forget the work by anti-Nazi emigre's in motion pictures alone.

Subsidizing certain persons as approved artists would be based, I presume, on a judgment of their talent. This runs counter to the usual practice in the performing arts in which awards are based on achievement, e.g.: best foreign film actor in 1990, best stage director in 1989. As hard as it is to determine which of several performing artists is the best in a particular category in a limited time frame or for a life's work, it is a decision subject to certain criteria. Talent, on the other hand, is in the eye of the beholder, and for committees to designate approved artists is arbitrary to the point of absurdity.

The function of government in advancing the arts, including the performing arts, lies not in sponsoring individuals but in assisting those institutions that teach and distribute the arts. The activities of museums, theaters and schools can be assessed by objective criteria such as the outreach of their programs, their acceptance by the community and their administrative soundness. In supporting the broad range of the arts and artistic training, government also avoids the trap of an official art with its coterie of approved artists.

DONALD K. KANES Falls Church