IDEALLY, suburbia is a place that has the benefits of both rural and city living but none of their drawbacks. Books taking issue with that run from the socially scientific to the comic, and there are many of them. But even more abundant is art about the subject, which invariably takes the form of caricature, be it an affectionately witty cartoon in The New Yorker or a cruel photograph by Diane Arbus.

But an entire exhibition about suburbia - this is almost unheard of. Yet, at the Whitney Museum in Stamford, is ''Suburban Home Life: Tracking the American Dream,'' a show that made its debut in Manhattan at another Whitney branch.

Assembled by five Helena Rubinstein Fellows in the Independent Study Program of the Whitney, this selection of roughly 70 paintings, sculpture, architectural visualizations and video commemorates well enough the surge to the suburbs after World War II. But the catalogue is a problem: the discourse is glib and a bit smart-alecky.

Apparently, suburbia is an exclusively American manifestation for the curator, Miwon Kwon. She writes as if it had nothing to do with the European Romantic movement, itself a byproduct of and a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless, she itemizes the familiar pros and cons: peace and quiet versus the monotony of look-alike housing (as opposed to the infinite variety of, say, high-rise living in Manhattan); serenity on the surface versus abnormality below (see Eric Fischl's painting of hanky-panky by the swimming pool), and so on.

At the same time, Ms. Kwon makes it clear that for all the criticism leveled at it - mostly by intellectuals and artists - suburbia continues to flourish. The curator takes the conventional view of the development as the realization of the American Dream (as if the desire to own a house and the land it stands on were peculiar to this country) but does not touch on the almost cicadian regularity with which it is enacted. After all, countless couples settle in the suburbs in order to rear children, only to have them bolt for the city at their earliest opportunity. Those children go back, of course, when the time comes to rear children of their own who, in turn . . .

In her essay, Sarah Bayliss, a Rubinstein Fellow, probes suburban domestic life for materialism, hypocrisy and the oppression of women, citing as evidence advertising from the 1950's on, the photo-realist Robert Bechtle's painting of an average American family posing with its Pontiac, and more recent ironies by the photographers Judy Dater and Sandy Skoglund. All highlight, Ms. Bayliss says, ''the need for an alternative way to perceive women and home life; one that exists independently of material domestic conventions.''

Counting the psychological cost of the good life, Christopher Robert Hoover's essay attributes to suburbia a failing that is endemic in egalitarian societies: to revere the theory of individualism while recoiling from its practice. In any case, Mr. Hoover sees proof of the suburban pudding in movies like ''A Nightmare on Elm Street,'' ''Poltergeist'' and ''Dawn of the Dead.'' Five hours of horror transferred to tape, the films go with the show and, taken with the tapes by contemporary videoists and a few documentaries, the total viewing time is close to nine hours. (The museum is open from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.) Equally obvious is the collective bias of the curators, but though they are against capitalism, they subscribe to its class system. For example, there is a model of Frank O. Gehry's house in California, a large, rambling lean-to where the walls are as likely to be made of corrugated metal and chain-link fence as of wood. The architect is quoted expressing disingenuous surprise at the smugness of neighbors who do not like his structure. He notes that when he points out to them that he uses the same industrial materials that they keep lying around their backyards in the form of boats, campers and the like, they reply, ''Oh, no, that's normal.''

Then there is Diane Arbus's famous black and white photograph, ''A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N.Y.'' - a litter-strewn lawn that looks more like a picnic ground. Suburbanites or not, the movie-star type blonde and her distracted man would doubtless seem as bored and estranged if they were at Coney Island for the day.

With their poker-faced renderings of houses in color, the photographers William Eggleston, Tom Bernard, Steven Izenour and Stephen Shore hold suburbia at arm's length for a more clinical investigation. The architectural firm of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown offers color pictures of Levittown housing with a caption that, in effect, advises the cognoscenti to grin and bear it. The residents, they say, are happy with their homes and the improvements they make are consonant with the designs. Incidentally, when compared with the chip board structures seen recently by the reviewer in New Jersey, the show's houses look pretty good.

Outside of Mr. Gehry, the show ignores the suburban upper crust; splendid villas are nowhere to be seen. Aside from the aerial view of Levittown taken by an anonymous photographer, beauty tends to be in the eye of the artist - Ed Ruscha's nocturnal view of a shadowy black mansion with a large red ''F'' plastered to its facade; the terrace of toy houses made by James Casebere and photographed by him in black and white, along with a similarly staged scene of mock toys filling a room.

James Wines, who heads Site, the architectural collective responsible for the Best Products Company showrooms, is represented by a mysterious charcoal drawing of skyscrapers standing beside water. The facade of one has been removed to reveal landscapes within studded mansions. An architectural whimsy? A proposal for saving nature from developers by keeping it indoors? Never mind, the image is the ''after'' to Frank Lloyd Wright's ''before'' - two views of an urban fantasy where the automobiles look like miniature paddlewheelers and the helicopters like U.F.O.'s.

Doubts as to the show's mission should be resolved by Jeff Koons's ghastly ''Winter Bears.'' A boy bear and a girl bear carved by another hand, the two evidently stand for the kitsch preferred by suburbanites. This highlights the production's greatest weakness, which is to imply that suburbia is a lower-middle class enterprise when in fact it has all the usual social gradations.

There is, however, a problem and Mr. Hoover comes the closest to identifying it when he observes that the planned communities formerly regarded as an ''attractive alternative'' to rural and urban living are now seen as a ''homogenizing growth over the entire social sphere.''

''Suburban Home Life: Tracking the American Dream'' will remain at the Whitney Museum, 1 Champion Plaza, Stamford, through Sept. 6.

Photo of work by Eve Arnold; work by Stephen Shore