Jonathan Yardley's "Art and the Mingus Experience" {Style, Sept. 10} presents itself as a "cautionary tale." It ends as a diatribe against artists and arts funding organizations -- a thinly disguised attack on the National Endowment for the Arts. Apparently, anyone who applies or qualifies for a grant is "masquerading as an artist," since Mr. Yardley offers no other criterion by which to judge him.

Mr. Yardley should know that it takes time and money to make art. According to Mr. Yardley's column, Charles Mingus himself was often unable to produce his works, did not finish "Epitaph" and experienced the failure of a concert of his work as a "crushing blow." How can Mr. Yardley then assert that "circumstances don't matter; rejection doesn't matter; money doesn't matter" to artists? Charles Mingus was a "true artist," but not because of his financial and logistical struggle to produce his work.

It is not reasonable to expect artists to do without time, money and freedom in which to make art. That some succeed anyway does not set the standard for artistic achievement but rather offers another cautionary tale: What might Charles Mingus have done if he had not had to contend with barriers of money and racism? And what art is currently not being made because of these and other "cultural odds"?

The NEA and other arts funding organizations offer artists time, space and places to present and practice their art. They provide not only grants to individuals but crucial matching funds to orchestras, theaters, dance companies and community arts centers that bring the arts within the reach of children and ordinary adults. Taken together, these projects could make up a thriving arts community, which the whole society needs.

CATHERINE C. WHITE Washington