"I am alarmed by our culture," said actress Jane Alexander in a recent interview.

"I think there are many things to be very, very fearful about: the breakup of the family unit. It's an anxiety ridden time . . . Our culture, more than any other in the world, perpetuates itself on this 'What Makes Sammy Run' kind of energy.

"I feel the arts counterbalance that."

They do, Miss Alexander. And as we start a tough new year, the cheerful news is that the arts in America are blooming and booming as never before. According to the latest Harris Poll, four out of five Americans (81 percent) believe it is important to have "more and better arts and cultrual facilities for both the performing and visual arts."

Even more surprising, more than half of all Americans (51 percent) feel that the arts are so important, they are willing to pay $25 additional in federal taxes to support arts programs. Three out of five (59 percent) favor paying $15 more.

The survey, which was sponsored by Phillip Morris Inc. and the American Council of the Arts, of which Alexander is a member, also found that Americans are working longer hours now (46.9 per week) than they were in 1973 (40.6 per week).

Yet people are devoting more of their leisure time not only to the enjoyment of museums, concerts, movies and live theater, but also to personal participation in the arts. Many more Americans than seven years ago play musical instruments, study creative writing, take ballet or modern dance, sing in a choir, sculpt, paint, photograph, do needlepoint or work with local theater groups.

Restoring the balance must be in the nature of our society.

Alexander is right: Alarming ugliness in sight and sound blares at us day and night. America continues to foul its living environment as though there were still open country enough to escape to.

As machines and electronics take over, people get increasingly incompetent. Human inefficiency is not confined to Three Mile Island. You can rarely get a plumber who knows how to fix your toilet, no matter what you pay him.

Automation has progressed from factories to offices, but education has not caught up to cope with it efficiently. Office automation, furthermore, forces many people to find jobs in "tertiary occupations," as economists call them -- performing various services that only humans can render. We need these services. But we have no performance standards for suppliers and consumers.

The suppliers take no pride in their work and are surly about it, because we all look down on it. The consumers degrade it with tips, and treat waiters, cab drivers or salesclerks either with chumminess or haughtiness. What a good service job needs is respect and self-respect.

Our mass communication media diffuse not only mass culture, but also massive junk. I fear the junk in people's minds, as much as Alexander fears the junk in people's stomachs.

But the galss is also half full.

For all, the grim Coolfizzle, we now find good, domestic table wine almost everywhere. For all the Greasy Crunchburgers, there are all these fine new restaurants, even in the provinces. The American cuisine -- average middle-class home cooking -- is probably equal to that of France. Count the number of people you know who bake their own bread, at least on occasion.

The high divorce rate, frightening as it is, may well be balanced by improvements in our care for elderly people, battered women and neglected and maltreated children.

For all the shoddy, deceptively packaged and advertised merchandise that exasperates us about American industry, there is an encouraging increase in proud and meticulous arts and crafts.

For all the disco noise, good music has become more popular than it ever was in America. The concert and opera audiences in Washington's Kennedy Center are every bit as sophisticated as in the Vienna Staatsoper.

While psychobabble and gobbledegook muddy information, conversation and though in America, deploring them has now become as commonplace as deploring the TV "wasteland."

What are we so indignant about? The uneducated always have had throuble expressing themselves and talked in obscenities, cockney, patois or slang. Now they are half-educated and write their office memoranda or feature stories in sociologese, group therapese or me-me-me-mese.

Jane Alexander -- whom this member of her audience considers one of the most intellignet actresses on today's stage and screen -- is too young to remember what Southwest Washington looked like before they cleared the slums, urban-renewed it and built the Arena Stage where she got her start.

The slums were bad.

To be sure, urban renewal was also not good. Too many poor people were displaced, most of them black people. Another piece of the black ghetto was turned into another white middle-class ghetto, with a little color added for civil rights' sake.

Urban renewal politics all but ruined the Maine Avenue waterfront with its charming fish restaurants and fish-scented bustle. That was a great cultural loss.

But then the urban renewers also built Arena Stage. Aside from the National Theater in the capital of the United States of America at the time, 20 years ago.

And although Washington's Southwest was by far the best designed urban-renewal project and remains, by and large, a successful effort, we would do it very different today.

In the first place, we would not "renew" such a big part of a living city. We have lost some of our arrogance. Today, we would rehabilitate, and the residents would participate. There would be restored old houses and a greater mix of people and activities. There would be architectural and social efforts to make the area a true neighborhood.

This is not because today's planners and developers are more intelligent or idealistic. It is, I believe, because public opinion is more alert, and American culture has matured. Three-quarters of the population now lives in urban envionments. More people have become urban in their thinking.

The change of mind, as I see it, is about history, community and culture.

More people have learned that history is not only written, but also built. We are still tearing down a lot more than we should. But we no longer seek modernity in our habitat as much as livability and continuity.

Americans have all but ruined the American countryside, because we always wanted to get away from it all. That is why we came here in the first place.

Now a feeling of isolation and alienation, to say nothing of mechanized farming, and the high price of commuting and remote farm houses, have overtaken rugged individualism. Increasingly, Americans desire community, neighborhood and that old barn-raising spirit.

And culture -- as Louis Harris again confirmed.

Thomas Jefferson to the contrary notwithstanding, in the past this country considered the arts a private affair, somewhat like religion, that government should stay away from.

That changed a little with Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal arts programs. It changed a lot when the Supreme Court said, in 1954, that it was the right of the legislature to make the community beautiful, as well as safe. Congress, somewhat later, established National Endownments for the Arts and for the Humanities.

That brought rain to the desert and accounts, to a large extent, for the latest Harris Pool results.

I therefore submit that Alexander -- and Barbara Tuchman (who recently expressed similar apprehensions in The New York Times Magazine) -- are needlessly alarmed about our culture.

Life, culture and art in America today are noisy, confused and often irritating. They are changing and churning.

But it cannot be said that they are stagnant. That would be more alarming than the turmoil.

And there is a lot of promising talk about "the quality of life."