Is backlash an inevitable consequence of progress? If so, the arts are facing rough seas. Over the past decades or so, the arts have won a far more visible and firm place in the American scheme than in the past. Audiences have grown immensely and so has patronage. To a large extent, the public consciousness has been raised in respect to the needs of the nation's artists and their contribution to the enhancement of our lives. These advances, however, have come at a price. A magnified arts constituency has brought new problems, new challenges. Unless these are recognized and dealt with, all the apparent headway of the '60s and '70s could prove to be a will o' the wisp.

Such thoughts are prompted by the coming change of leadership at the National Endowment for the Arts, and some of the commentary on the subject seen and heard recently. Noting the resignation of present Endowment chairman Nancy Hanks, and the record of achievement and expansion she will leave behind, and editorial in this paper this past week foresaw a possible "breathing spell" in the wake of a decade of explosive activity.

Consolidation of gains and "refinement of the endowment's programs and purposes" would replace the previous aggressive extension of support, it was suggested. The "obvious reason" was said to be "that the amount of federal money available for subsidizing the arts is not going to expand at anything like the dizzying rate of the past eight years." Here, the editorial continued: "And it shouldn't be expected to. Without being to arbitrary about it, it seems to us that there ought to be some cutoff point beyond which it is imprudent for the federal government to move in this field - some point at which the incentive to private patronage and support is diminished by too-easy access to the Treasury."

If there is such a cutoff point, and that is surely open to debate, nothing in recent history would lead one to believe it is anywhere near sighting distance. On the day that Hanks' resignation was announced, The New York Times carried two stories on opposite pages. One was an appreciation of Hank's leadership, and the brighter artistic prospects her tenure and engendered. The other was a report that the 33-year old New York City Opera company was in grave danger of collapse for lack of adequate funding. Like many other of the country's major arts institutions, City Opera has received help from the Arts Endowment. But as of last year, that assistance amounted to roughly 10 per cent of its annual operating cost - a drop in an ever-enlarging bucket.

The contrast ought to speak for itself. We have come far, it is true, but our presumptive destination - a reasonable degree of security for the artists and artistic endeavors in our midst - lies far beyond the immediate horizon. The City Opera case is not a fluke. In the field of dance, for example, within the past year, American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theater of Harlem were all obliged to cancel tours or seasonal series because of insufficient resources. The New York City Ballet was shut down for weeks by a strike. The Paul Taylor Company, which announced its imminent disbanding, was saved only by emergency appeals and donations.

Nor is it just dance. Joseph Papp decided to clear out of Lincoln Center because even he, with his record of managerial miracles, couldn't make the Vivian Beaumont Theater economically viable. The American Shakespeare Theater canceled its season of classical productions. And the Metropolitan Opera, faced by a musician's union's demands for pay increases and other expensive benefits, is once again up against the wall.

These are scarely fly-by-night enterprises, or untried, experimental institutions. Nor is their plight new - just worse than before. Why is this so, after so considerable a rise in federal aid? Largely because the arts are inevitably one of the hardest hit victims of our inflationary economy. By their very nature, the arts are not and cannot become profit-making, or even break-even, ventures. Labor costs cannot be cut by automation - actors or horn players are not replaceable by computers. Auditoriums and theaters are already bigger than they ought to be ideally, and tickets prices can't be raised without excluding all but the most affluent.

Nor can the "product" be refurbished to reduce costs or boost sales appeal - a "new improved" "King Lear" or "Swan Lake" just won't wash. Yet the arts have experienced the same escalation of payrolls, overhead and other expenses that have plunged other sectors of the economy, without any comparable means of fighting back.

Sure, federal subsidy has much increased, though the "dizzying rate" of the Hanks era has still left us far behind the per-capita rate of support in most other advanced nations, large and small. But it is also true that the federal sums have had to be spread across a much broader band of grantees than formerly - the demand has continually outpaced the supply. And far from discouraging private patronage, the Endowment largesse - carefully parceled out with "matching" requirements in most cases - has stimulated unprecedented private gifts. Yet the crisis persists, as every sober anaylst has predicted it would. In 1975, a heavily researched report by the National Committee for Cultural Resources recommended a minimum federal appropriation of $225 million in 1976-77 just to keep things on an even keel. That's twice the current budget of the Arts Endowment.

There's a more sinister aspect to all this. If perpetual cliffhanging becomes an accepted modus vivendi for the arts, we'll begin to see this reflected (if we haven't already) in the quantity of our arts productions as well as their substance. Subconsiously or otherwise, artist will realize that insuring survival means pandering to common denominators, avoiding the controversial, shunning risk. And that way lies artistic extinctin.

Far from discussing breathing spells and cutoff points, we ought to be looking seriously at more comprehensive and farsighted measures than any contemplated in the past 10 years - something, perhaps, like the still-pending Richmond proposal for tax-return checkoffs, which has strong backing in the arts community and if recent Harris polls can be credited, a good chance for public approval.if we don't start thinking along these lines, there's no use kidding ourselves - the great national resource represented by American artists and ensembles will wither, and so will our collective well-being.