"One can live with 50 percent cuts -- one can live with pestilence and disease," Theodore Bikel, member or the National Council on the Arts, told Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that held a hearing yesterday on the National Endowment for the Arts budget. The agency faces 50 percent cuts in the administration's proposed fiscal 1982 budget, and the testimony from staff officials and from supporters expressed distress similar to Bikel's.

"The individual artists will be dead first," said Bikel, referring to a revamped NEA budget. "The sculptor, the painter, the poet -- the ones who have absolutely no call on the private sector. What poet do you know who goes to corporations and says, 'Give me $2,000 so I don't have to drive a cab, but can sit down and write my volume of poetry'? It doesn't exist."

Eleven members of the National Council on the Arts -- the group that advises the NEA and will meet here this weekend -- came to the hearing, often offering their views to Yates, who is strongly opposed to the cuts. But mainly the program directors of the NEA spoke.

From Brian O'Doherty, director of the media program: At 50 percent cuts, we'd drop or abandon 'Dance in America," 'Live From the Met' [public TV series], all short series and specials [for television]. The architecture and design series would be abandoned after one year . . . Speaking for myself, with 50 percent cuts, there's no reason to be here [at the NEA]."

O'Doherty, speaking from his knowledge of the NEA's joint ventures with business, said he doubted that business would pick up the slack in NEA's funding cutback. "Exxon and the Endowment keep a scrupulous eye on our mutual investments," he said. "If we reduce our funds, there is no question that they will have second thoughts about investing."

From Rhoda Brauer, director of the dance program: "We will find that dance artists who are next in line for shows like 'Dance in America' will never get a chance. We may see some grand productions of instantly visible artists, but we won't see the next generation [of dancers]."

Arthur Ballet, former head of the theater program, said cutbacks will hurt small or experimental theater groups: "It means everything we've done to urge theaters into being experimental, into encouraging young actors, goes."

David Wilks, director of the literature program: "A few literary magazines will disappear. Some may reduce themselves in size, some may come out twice a year instead of quarterly."

A. B. Spellman, director of the Expansion Arts program: "The category of consortium [grants to community-based arts groups that pool resources] is lost . . . Some major summer arts programs will suffer."

Rosalind Wyman, a member of the National Council on the Arts, who foresees difficulty raising funds for the arts: "I spend a lot of time raising funds. The demands on the private sector have increased tremendously. rPeople are not only being asked for arts, they're being asked for child care. They're having to rethink that dollar."