IN THIS country, "the arts" figure in most people's lives in about the same way that an appetizer or dessert dresses up a standard meal. An evening spent at the theater, a visit to a museum, a double-feature are luxuries to round out or provide escape from the workaday world.

Lucy Lippard will have none of this. "We're taught that art is either above it all, or below it all," says this defiant art historian, critic and organizer. "Coal miners and teachers are supposed to be political. Why should artists be exempt?"

For close to 20 of her 47 years, Lippard has struggled to make clear the connection between art and society. Her monthly column in the Village Voice bypasses traditional gallery and museum reviews in favor of reports from the front -- trenchant essays on how the creative process relates to the current situation in Central America, feminism, advertising. A prolific writer, her 14 books include studies of painter Ad Reinhardt and sculptor Eva Hesse, a novel, and -- as a result of a year spent on an isolated farm in southern England -- last year's brilliant, photograph-studded "Overlay," a comparison of contemporary and prehistoric art.

But it is her work with artists and other "cultural workers" that makes Lippard something of a beacon in these dark and often unfocused times. "I've been an activist since 1968, as a response to the Vietnam war," she says. "I began to realize that artists had to take responsibility for themselves as people. I certainly believe that art is communication, and if you're communicating, you're taking responsibility. Artists here think their work has no power, but in repressive regimes they really go for the jugular, and look who gets killed or silenced -- the artists, the teachers, the expressive ones."

She has been instrumental in the development of Artists Call, which has provoked artists across the United States and Canada to comment on American involvement in Central America through visual art, film festivals, banners, breakdancing, poetry readings, videotapes, dance performances and more. Five years ago, she cofounded Political Art Documentation Distribution (PADD), a group of New York artists who set up exhibits and performances devoted to specific, ultrahot topics.

"Death and Taxes," which addressed the arms race, had 50 people doing projects in their neighborhoods -- art in phone booths, stickers in ladies rooms, installations in vacant lots. "And on Election Day," Lippard says, "begins 'State of Mind, State of the Union,' a project in which we've asked artists to confront what we've got coming for the next four years. Artists and cultural people can envision what could be and what isn't, can make images by which people can move ahead. And I've found that people are much more open to good strong imagery if it isn't in a museum or gallery . . . If it's out on the street, in a magazine, in their own territory, then people aren't intimidated. They feel free to love something or hate it, to make a judgment that they wouldn't dare in an elite setting.

"I've watched two or three cycles of so-called political art become fashionable," says this surprisingly unjaded veteran of the cultural scene. "Today, art with a political content is not totally taboo, as it seemed to be in the '70s. It's just taboo to say what you think -- you've got to be either ambiguous or ironic."

Lippard, who seems to say exactly what she thinks, will present a lecture and slide show called "Imagine Being Here Now" at 8 this evening at Herb's Restaurant, 2121 P St. NW. Cosponsored by the Washington School of the Institute for Policy Studies and Artists Call, this event will deal with "fear, really, about images of fear," and will involve a great wealth of visual material -- posters, graffiti, painting, sculpture and installations.