THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT for the Arts has been busy defending itself, not just its budget request, before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies. Last Thursday, Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), one of the long-time friends and supporters of both the Arts and Humanities Endowments, who chairs the appropriation subcommittee, came brandishing a 75-page committee report criticizing the Arts Endowment for using too cozy a circle of advisers and consultants; for poor management, and for abrogating "its leadership role." Endowment officials, evidently prepared for the worst, fired back their own 90-page rebuttal, calling the committee investigation "so flawed both conceptually and technically as to be almost without merit." Mighty stinging words for art lovers; but, as anyone knows who has ever dealt in this realm, compared with an arts war, an honest-to-God military battle seems like a high-school debate.

The charge that a "closed circle" of acquaintances runs the Endowment through overlapping appointments to panels and committees is a serious one, and one both the Arts and Humanities have been guilty of for some time. Beside the obvious wrong of creating situations where friends make grants to friends, or friends of friends, there is also the patently unhealthy set-up in which stale ideas recycle like so much dead air. Bad as that is, it is also inevitable. Organized culture in American is not infinitely various, anymore than organized science, and quite often those who are asked to do the work of the Endowments will also be doing the work the Endowments are meant to promote. The committee's charge that the Arts Endowment awards contracts "on a noncompetitive basis . . . to perform services that are the responsibility of the NEA staff," is a much more serious business, and, if true, the Endowment better clean up its act in a hurry.

Yet even more serious is the committee report's most amorphous charge-that the Endowment has given up its role as a national leader in cultural affairs. This clearly is so.

The point is that there has to be some strong, evident sense of purpose and direction here-especially now when the Arts Endowment has stated it wishes to double its budget from $149.5 million to $300 million by 1984. Livingston Biddle, The Arts chairman, has defended his agency, saying that its mandate is not to forge a national arts policy-which is correct-but rather "a national policy of support for the arts." Fine. Where is it? Where, in short, is the evidence that the Endowment is interested in doing anything more these days than keeping a fearful eye on constituents, and keeping itself afloat?