Back in the '50s, when it was suggested to President Eisenhower that Russia had us at a disadvantage because it had an official philosophy and we did not, he showed a sympathetic appreciation of the difficulties involved and suggested, "Look here -- why don't we have a writer, or somebody, to draw one up?"

Those, of course, were penny-ante days compared with these, for in recent years the lament has been not for any mere philosophy, but for a whole "culture," which we are now paying for people to "draw up" to the tune of $600 million a year. That, it is projected, will be the annual sum of money to be spent on the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities' ere this decade's half up. Then, too, there will be at least that much more in challenge grants and matching grants from the big corporations. They profess to love culture just as much as the government does -- which is to say, as much as the wolf loved Little Red Riding Hood -- and their representatives can be seen on almost any given week sitting elbow to elbow with equally enthusiastic legislators and high administration commissars of beauty and truth, over the good silver and crystal, and in the fragrant proximity of whole baskets full of white tulips and violets, while partaking of sherry, cold artichokes, marinated beef, zucchini and poached pears -- all for the sake of culture.

In a way, their instincts are sound, because American culture, aside from the movies, does seem to be in a bad way, with the arts having produced no composer, no painter, no poet, no sculptor and, at most, one writer of real distinction since 1945, and with the humanities being dominated from top to bottom by corporate academicians of narrow specialties, whose true interest in their own subjects -- other than as means by which to rise -- is minimal.

And so big government, always ready with a remedy, has given us the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose doings are trenchantly chronicled by Michael Mooney in the upcoming issue of Harper's. The rationale, of course, is that it is not going to be like Russia, where there's an official ideology and everybody is obliged to write, paint, sculpt or research the party line. Ah no, not here -- where everybody is going to be Free, to live up to the aesthetic standards of the government, and where the prime purpose, besides that of Enriching Our Country, will be to help The Artist, who has a tough row to hoe because he is chronically broke.

Unfortunately, the toughest row for any artist to hoe, it seems to me, is that of having no talent, and the second toughest is having no soul, and the third is having no self-discipline. It is sometimes difficult to see just what the federal government and corporate America can do about that.

This brings us to the fourth toughest row to hoe -- namely, any artist's or scholar's sure knowledge that the arts and humanities, like most other sectors of our society, are controlled by smooth, manipulative middlemen. The way the government proposes to help them with that is by laying on more middlemen. These, we are told, will give out the honors in American culture. This is curious. Now, to give out cabbage, you must first have cabbage. With honor, however, it may be a different case -- and when you get down to it, any culture commissar who succeeds in finding an artist out there has performed an exceedingly meritorious act. What usually obtains, when you turn over a rock in search of a serious artist, is that an entrepreneur with a paint brush or typewriter crawls out, zigzagging like a roach in his nervous hunt for the next stipend, and scanning the horizon for that blessed day when he can at last cool it with the "artist" dodge and become a middleman, too, gravely lunching with others of his kind, or taking dollars extorted by the IRS from a hapless welder in Akron and giving them to some sunbather who wants to write free verse on the flight of gulls and who would hate the welder if he met him, and for whom the only truly obscene four-letter word is "work."

I speak out of no large innocence, for I was broke a few years ago, filled out a little form the NEA had, and got $5,000 back in the mail to help me finish a novel. Moreover, they were gentle people down there, the money helped over some exceedingly difficult times, and there were no strings attached. If you had said anything to them about an official party line, they would have been shocked, and rightfully so, because there was none.

As for an unofficial party line, however, it was another matter, because those on the selection board were, of course, in the American literature business, which has been dominated by a single idea for the past 60 years: that a work of fiction is not to be considered serious unless the protagonist is a person who, overwhelmed by the brutal and confusing aspects of American life, abandons reason, self-control and political action in favor of gratuitous violence, verbose sniveling and obsessive sex. This bothers me, not only because it became outworn and boring 25 years ago, but because it canonizes as "sensitive" just the sort of supine behavior an oppressive government would want of its artists and scholars, and of its citizens generally. Moreover, similar canons reign in the other arts. And thus, if it is nice for the official culture to be mothered by Mrs. Mondale, one wonders whether it isn't a little too nice, and whether it is worth any $600 million a year.