THE NATIONAL Endowment for the Arts turns 25 this month, but perhaps the kindest thing Congress could do for the arts in America is to dismantle the endowment in its present form. True, an independent commission has just issued a report calling for reform and abolition of the "content restrictions" imposed last year. And Congress appears ready to reauthorize the NEA's mission. But it is hard to imagine at this point why anyone would care, or why anyone would want an agency so compromised to continue doing business as usual.

It is also difficult to see why anyone would want to continue the debate -- "What is obscene?" "What is art?" "Whither the NEA?" -- that has consumed so much energy for a year. In fact, a closer analysis reveals that such discussions have had little to do with art and a lot to do with bureaucracy -- and how politicians and bureaucrats think about art. Perhaps that is what makes it such an appealing Washington story: Put another way, the debate has not been about "Anna Karenina" but Anna's husband, the knuckle-cracking bureaucrat, who would have had a great fondness for terms like "peer panels."

The NEA has been a hot topic because of a few publicized cases, the most celebrated of which was its support for an exhibit that included photographs depicting homosexual acts. Suddenly, it became possible to examine the mechanics of a larger bureaucracy through a few of its visible products. It also became easy to trace the expenditure of public money to purposes not all taxpayers would applaud.

Does it not now seem inevitable that a Sen. Jesse Helms would produce a law forbidding federal funding of "obscene or indecent materials . . . including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism . . . or material which denigrates the objects of beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion; or material which denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin"? The pathetic truth is that Helms not only made his point when he attached those conditions to NEA grants, but won the bigger fight. By then, the agency responsible for supporting American artists was attempting to regulate them, as if artists, like automobiles, needed better anti-pollution controls.

What followed Helms's victory was less an argument than an afterthought, and the challenge now is to avoid getting caught up judging the stuff that provoked such reactions (though it is fair to say that art -- good and bad -- often contains precisely the elements that offended Helms). And before the endowment is revived, abolished or, better still, wholly changed, there are worse questions to be asked than these: What larger cultural purposes does it serve? Is more, or better, art being produced? And, finally, this oft-repeated and rather rhetorical question: Is it possible to restrict artistic expression and simultaneously support it? From the standpoint of the NEA, good work continues to be done. For each controversial exhibit that now goes unfunded, they would say, many worthy projects get help. The endowment, in fact, has awarded more than 83,000 grants totaling more $2.1 billion in its 25 years, and no doubt the nation is enriched by many of the activities to which it contributes -- Washington's Arena Stage (founded 15 years before the NEA) comes to mind at once. But is that an argument for the NEA, or merely for the equivalent of a federally supported blind trust for the performing arts?

What is known by that odd phrase "arts community" remains adamant that the survival of the NEA and the arts themselves are a common cause. ("Arts community" has become, over the years, an increasingly apt term. An endowment study reports that from 1965 to 1989 "the number of artists in the United States had nearly tripled . . . . The number in the South, for example, increased from 136,000 in 1970 . . . to nearly 300,000 in 1980, making the South the home of more artists than any other region.") Still, not all artists claim membership in the "arts community," and not everyone in the "arts community" has a serious claim as an artist.

It is tougher for the endowment to demonstrate a fruitful connection between itself and the work of individual artists. Indeed, there may be a dispiritingly permanent relationship between federal funding and crummy art, a phenomenon noted by poet-translator-publisher Robert Bly. In a 1978 essay, Bly observed that more books of poetry were being published -- and more were supported by grants from the endowment. But he went on to say this:

"This artificial priming, or governmental interference, is having bad effects. The grants now support magazines that would otherwise mercifully have died. If you're an editor, and you're putting out an issue on time to get your grant, the easiest thing is to fill it with poems. If they're bad, you say, 'At least I'm helping the poet to get started!' "

The NEA has, in that sense, gotten lots of things started, though it is eager to take credit for more. Ask an NEA official to list significant grantees, and you are told that jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, playwright Wendy Wasserstein and novelist John Irving are among them. So was the celebrated sculptor Isamu Noguchi. But of the tens of thousands of grants granted, many went for endeavors not so widely known or conspicuously successful. John Updike once put it this way (perhaps anticipating that terrifying statistic -- the 300,000-plus artists who now inhabit the American South): "Now that the government no longer has to prop up wheat prices, it has become the last great underwriter of the avant-garde." This would have gone on, with little attention paid, had not the controversies of '89 broken forth, producing not only Helms's amendment but mushy and/or hyperbolic reactions, all of An endowment study reports that from 1965 to 1989 "the number of artists in the United States had nearly tripled."

which cut off both sensible discussion and any chance of an effective role for the NEA. Some of what was said was this:

"We cannot look strictly at artistic excellence in a vacuum, but we have to look at how it's going to play in an audience that we are charged with serving, which is the people." (NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer, on the day he said he could accept a law imposing penalties on grant recipients who are subsequently convicted of obscenity.)

"I feel like I'm living under McCarthyism or Stalinism. I didn't think this would affect me so deeply, but it has." (Performance artist Karen Finley, known for intimate work with chocolate, gelatin and assorted vegetables, after being turned down for a grant.)

"I am only as free as Karen Finley is. I am only as free as {performance artist} Holly Hughes is. The proscription on their actions proscribes my imagination. It makes me do one of two things: retreat or rebel." (David Chambers, a Yale drama professor who headed the endowment's theater overview panel.)

Such utter and complete nonsense has, of course, not gone unchallenged. Daniel P. Moynihan, the New York senator and Smithsonian regent, a year ago pointed out that retreat, rebellion and censorship were not exactly on the line here. "Nothing in {Helms's} bill," he said, "in any way inhibits the First Amendment right of these artists to exhibit their work, and it would be nothing new in our experience if the present controversies brought their work to a wider audience than might otherwise be the case." Robert Mapplethorpe's auction house could not have phrased it better. Still, this city is getting ready to go through it again -- an interminable debate flush with the language of professional arts bureaucrats -- "grant advisory panels" and "evaluative comments" and the rest. An independent commission chaired by John Brademas and Leonard Garment this past week urged improvements in granting procedures and asked Congress to get rid of those Helmsian restrictions. Helms & Co. nevertheless can be counted on to challenge the use of tax money for things that offend their eyes; others will point out, as novelist Joyce Carol Oates did last year, that "serious art often concerns itself with the exploration of what we call taboo."

No matter how wearying and mean-spirited the fight becomes, the rest of us ought to acknowledge, with some thanks, that the arts in America really do not depend on the NEA -- or on lobbying groups with bizarre names like Associated American Artists. In fact, they survive on their own, and artists have always had a weird and troubled relationship with governments. Moynihan, at the Mapplethorpian peak of the controversy, retrieved that splendid quote from painter John Sloan: " . . . it would be good to have a Ministry of Fine Art. Then we would know where the enemy is."

It should be recalled that in the mid-1960s, before the inception of America's fine art ministry, some (such as the late Sen. Jacob Javits) argued in favor of an endowment devoted primarily to the performing arts, while Sen. Claiborne Pell favored a federal agency that would incorporate support for the visual arts. Like so much in Washington, the resulting NEA was a compromise, a bureaucratic being that became skittish when it encountered any artistic expression upsetting to its masters -- members of the U.S. Congress. In that way, the NEA has come to bear an uncanny resemblance to the infamous Soviet Writers Union. Poet Vasily Betaki explained that methodology to the authors of a recent book, saying, "In the Soviet Union there are written laws and then there are laws that everyone knows but they are not written down anywhere . . . ."

In the United States, the NEA has come to understand its masters' unwritten laws all too well, and there is no reason to suppose it will change unless its masters change. And why should they? Congress last week was up to its usual tricks, with a Senate committee asking for a proviso that the endowment get a refund from any grantee who gets convicted of violating obscenity laws. In the House, a number of members, including the felicitously named Rep. Ralph Regula, still want restrictions on the type of art that may be federally funded. So it goes.

The temptation is to give up entirely, to suggest that Congress simply do away with the NEA, with no substitutes permitted. But if the NEA has become a joke with a $171-million wallet, it is not so easy to laugh at the dance companies, symphony orchestras, regional theaters and public broadcasting productions to which it gives money. There is surely a place for public funding of the arts, but federal agencies, just as surely, are destined for trouble when they try to judge, assist and guide painters, writers and other individual artists.

A dozen years ago, when the independent commission's Brademas chaired the House Committee on Education and Labor, Updike appeared before his panel and spoke of the perils of academic grantsmanship and the similar risks facing artists. He wondered aloud if such "brave, strange, stubborn spirits" as Joyce, Whitman and Henry James would have won government subsidies, and he gave a warning that now seems prophetic:

"In the living present how can publicly salaried men not think in terms of respectability, of socially beneficial optimism, of wide and uncontroversial appeal? How can grants panels not be drawn to the sociologically winsome and the amusingly communal? How can legislators asked to vote tax money away not begin to think of 'guidelines' that insidiously edge toward censorship?"

The individual and the state, as Updike and Solzhenitsyn -- as Socrates -- understood, have never gotten along very well. Might it not be better, at least for a while, to sever the connection? And after an appropriate cooling-off period, does a name like the National Trust for the Performing Arts have such an unpleasant sound?

Jeffrey Frank is an editor of Outlook.