THE STATE of the economy, at present, makes entertaining oneself in New York an expensive proposition. Theater tickets in The Big City are now $35; the best TV shows are on high-priced subscription or cable networks. Sporting events, rock concerts, even movies are pretty expensive; the price conscious, including yours truly, are constantly on the lookout for free things to look at.

The art galleries, obviously, are a good free show. There is an entire subculture surrounding the galleries, seemingly whole territories, provinces, nations all busily orbiting each other. Where Washington is proud of its few dozen commercial galleries, New York is home to hundreds and hundreds, as well as to tens of thousands of artists.

New galleries appear like mushrooms one fine morning, and old reliable galleries fade away into oblivion. The current economic recession has had a great deal of impact on the whole art scene. Hardly anyone is buying art; 'smart' investors are keeping their assets liquid and putting them into short-term, high-yield money funds. Much more of this and all the galleries will fade away into oblivion.

Apparently, many art dealers are putting on shows that reflect their sense of hopelessness. They feel, perhaps, that they have nothing to lose and sponsor such shows as "Graffiti Art." Artists are a disreputable lot, anyway. How many artists sit on the board of Shearson, American Express? It's entertaining to watch them squabble over $5 in a barroom, argue about esthetics on a street-corner, hawk their wares from dealer to dealer. If they only knew how poverty stricken many dealers were, the artists might not be so desperate to get involved with them.

The graffiti artist, for example, doesn't learn his trade at an art school. He or she starts out vandalizing the No. 7 IRT Flushing train--or any handy automobile. New York City is the hardest place on planet Earth on cars. Given the choice between parking in San Salvador and parking in Brooklyn, take San Salvador. In Brooklyn, or anywhere else in the city, your car is liable to be stolen, impounded by the authorities or stripped on the spot.

The remains, in any case, are subject to spray-painted "Graffiti Art."

The "Graffiti Artists" already have their own galleries and art press PR flacks. They should get 30 days, instead.

At the other end of the economic ladder, there are fancy uptown galleries where the Truly Beautiful and Merely Snotty can be encountered. Often, there are legendary figures out of the art history books. Ironically, many, if not most of these folks started out as disreputably as the graffiti boys.

A lot of current art is being done by artists in trouble with their landlords. Landlords, rents and real-estate in general are the subject of much discussion by both artists and the general public. Landlords generally fall into the categories, "greedy, greedier, and greediest." One problem that they all seem to share is an inability to find an accurate tape measure. Just about every 2,000-square-foot space in town is actually 1,500 square feet. The foot, to these people, is like the cubit to the ancient Egyptians. The landlords seem to be upset with their artist tenants; the landlords are angry and have shut off the artists' electricity, forcing them to work in the dark. The best way to paint in the dark, apparently, is to take handfuls of wet paint and smear it all over the canvas. If you're not careful you can break all your dishes groping around in the dark. An enterprising artist named Julian has made a great impact upon the current art scene by glueing the remains of his expired dinnerware to canvases. He supposedly made enough lucre with this gambit to, perhaps, mollify his landlord. His current "lights on" stuff just doesn't have the angst, the entdnt, the arrrgh, of his preceeding "lights out" smashed-plates paintings.

At least this fellow Julian leaves the subway trains alone.