Consider the plight of Mozart. There he was, still in his teens, recognized as the real thing, the darling of the court, slaving away on the orders of the Emperor himself to compose his first Italian opera. Finally it was finished. It was great, but that wasn't good enough. Some partisans found the opera politically offensive; they had sufficient clout inside the court to kill it. The opera was not produced.Same thing happened to Haydn.

Moral: don't mix art and politics.

That isn't the question so much anymore, at least not here, not yet. We've officially been mixing art and politics for more than a decade, with more and more millions from the public treasury going to more and more Americans. The questions now are how well this system works, how it can be improved, whether what we commission is worthwhile, and finally who decides the merits by employing what standards. These are all part of the politics of knowledge. It's a big, and growing business.

For instance: Joseph Duffey, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is sitting at his desk leafing through page upon page of research grant and fellowship applications. They come from all over the United States, and take all forms:

Someone from the University of California at San Diego wants federal money to study "Contemporary Art and Cultural Change in Urban Africa." A doctor asks $9,000 to study plastic surgery as a reflection of modern cultural trends. A man with an Irish name seeks $41,000 to study St. Patrick's Day and its cultural implications; he wants to find out why St. Patrick's Day is celebrated more widely in the United States than Ireland.

Eminent scholars and obscure citizens, big-name authors and young graduate students submit their varying subjects and wait for judgment. A noted historian needs more money to complete what promises to become the definitive biography of a major military figure. An unemployed Ph.D. wants a year's salary to conduct taped interviews on children and child-rearing in the Lower Naugatuck Valley of Connecticut. A recognized writer proposes a study on civil liberties in New Jersey from 1865 to 1917. A youth hopes to examine the Jewish-American survivors of the holocaust. Another's topic states, simply but sweepingly. "Gleanings of Wisdom from the Ages."

Duffey turns more pages and come sto the list of approved fellowships. Of more than 1,700 persons who applied, 175 are going to get them. They will be spending a year off from 84 American institutions, scattered over 29 states, to study such things as music in Paris in 1830. John Steinbeck, the ogre many think it is to be, manticism. Franklin Roosevelt and the isolationists, rationality and ethics, the politics of renaissance painting, and the populist movement in Georgia.

All this stems from what Duffey describes as the government's decision "to play a role in communicating a sense of civilization." It also represents something else: the extraordinary flowering and diversity of American culture in recent years.

Modern moral: government may be the orgre many think it to be, but in this as in so many other areas its role is critical. And as Joe Duffey will tell you, that cultural role is destined to becom greater and more delicate.

When the history of the tortuous last decade is written, an intriguing irony should stand out. Just at the time we were sending those young American troops into the high elephant grass of Vietnam, we were also approving an unprecedented and far reaching public financing of the arts and humanities. Even the legislation that was working its way through the Congress and onto the President's desk in mid-1965 contained unintentional emphasis on those differing directions in which the government was heading. As the language put it then, the U.S. position of world leadership should be based on achievement "in the realm of ideas and of the spirit" as well as on "superior power, wealth and technology."

Joe Duffey is one who will say, with the advantage of hindsight, that had we reversed our efforts at that time we might have been spared the resulting tragedies.

"I don't think it's too much to say that the creation of this endowment was prophetic," he suggests," in the sense that one of the problems of Vietnam was a set of planners that came from the best liberal arts colleges and universities with no sense of the differing culture and history of other parts of the world. Our experience was a tragic example of fundamental errors in judgment and wisdom. And obviously that was a problem with our urban planners of the '50s and '60s. It's hard to imagine that our urban fiascoes of those years would have gone forward if there had been some sense that the communities being 'renewed' needed to be protected against loss as much as aided from the outside."

While we were pouring our blood and treasure into Vietnam in vast measures, our cultural efforts were small. Congress created a National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, consisting of a separate endowment for each. The first appropriations called for $2.5 million apiece. Year by year over the last decade the amount spent for war declined as that for arts and humanities has risen. Today, the arts side dispenses some $115 million annually and the humanities $111 million. But it's the arts that have commanded the spotlight, the humanities the shadows.

Part of the reason should be obvious. Theater, dance and symphony are visible and dramatic, the humanities, encompassing so many seemingly obscure disciplines such as archeology and ancient languages and estoric subjects like philosophy, comparative religion and ethics, are more difficult to define and measure. And that's where the old question involving politics and art comes into play once more.

As Duffey takes over the humanities endowment, he's under pressure both from Congress and, to some extent, Jimmy Carter to be more visible, to broaden the scope of the endeavors, to lessen the image of "elitism." The point has been made that the arts endowment, while giving about the same amount of money, saw that it went to more than twice as many recipients. Democracy in action; the greatest good for the greatest number, you see.

That's nonsense, of course. It takes only a cursory look at the humanities activities to see that here, indeed, has been a rich and varied ranged of undertakings.

They have helped underwrite everything from "The Adams Chronicles" and "The American Short Story" on television to the national tour of King Tut's tombe - as well as supporting colleges, libraries, and museums, great and small;; scholars, noted and struggling; professtional people, of many backgrounds, seeking a chance to recharge themselves.

Duffey faces these questions with a philosophical yet practical air. He speaks of the dilemmas of encouraging excellence and yet providing the widest access to the uncelebrated, of worrying about intellectual arrogance and, yes, the role of the government in financing the arts and humanities. Financing, that is, ideas.

There is a legitimate case to be made," he says, "for government support - but support with a deft hand. It's a very dangerous area for the government to be involved in."

That it always was and still remains. But our record, so far, gives more reason to be thankful for than fearful of government financing of culture. If you are in doubt, remember this: when bitter national idsent over Vietnam was just beginning, a poem appeared in the Parisan Review. It was savage in its assult on our leaders: the bombs we were dropping were depicted as having "ears almost as large as the President's" Secretary of State Dean Rusk was portrayed as sporting a "smile that looks like incest."

The author subsequently got a federal arts grant, and the government made sure his poem received wider attention. The magazine, too, was awarded a federal arts grant.

At last Jan. 20, on Jimmy Carter's inaugural day, the crowds out on Pennsylvania Avenue earlier that morning were lined up to see King Tut.