It is a truth universally acknowledged (to paraphrase Jane Austen) that the artist and the statistician make strange bedfellows. The intuitive leanings of the one seem to have little in common with the tabulations of the other. Artistic merit, after all, is rarely susceptible to numerical measurement.
So it's a pleasant surprise to discover that the question ''How are the arts surviving in America?'' produces some solidly arithmetical responses - and that the answer is ''Very well indeed, thank you.''
A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts tells part of the story. It shows that, just when the recessions of recent years were apparently taking their toll on spectator sports and moviegoing, consumer spending on the nonprofit performing arts was growing at a great rate. Admission receipts for theater groups, opera companies, orchestras, dance troupes, and the like have risen (in constant dollars) at an annual rate of 5.8 percent since 1978 to a peak of $1.7 billion in 1982 - while receipts from movies and sports events declined during those years.
Other figures from the endowment, based largely on census data, substantiate the claim of a thriving arts community. In the decade from 1970 to 1980:
* The number of people calling themselves ''artists'' increased by 81 percent.
* Every state registered an increase, although the South saw the largest gain in artistic population; and, while California took over the top slot with the largest number of artists (176,000), New York still has the largest percentage ( 1.73 percent) of artists in its population.
* Women artists increased their numbers at a rate more than twice that of men - and at 2.5 times the rate of growth of the general working-woman population. The state with the largest number of women in its ''artist labor force'' is Iowa; the city, Kansas City.
Endowment officials also cite impressive growth in the estimated attendance figures for nonprofit theater groups (from 1 million in 1965 to 15 million last year), symphony orchestras (10.5 million to 23 million in the same period), and opera companies (up from 4.6 million in the 1969-70 season to 11 million in 1981 -82). Other branches of the arts, lacking statistics, nevertheless report strong impressions of growth. ''I've heard it said that there are three new museums created each week,'' says a spokeswoman for the American Association of Museums. The Art Dealers Association of America cites tremendous increases in the numbers of galleries in city after city across the nation.
There are, as usual, some caveats. The ''artists'' tallied in these figures are simply those who describe themselves that way, whether employed or unemployed. And the term is broad, covering not only authors and photographers but radio and TV announcers and teachers of the arts in higher education. It even includes ''performers not elsewhere classified'' - which may account for the high percentage of ''artists'' in Nevada, with its concentration of Las Vegas nightclub acts.
Yet the conclusion is undeniable: The arts in America are alive, well, and growing rapidly. Why?
Arts Endowment chairman Frank Hodsoll charges it up to various factors: increasing leisure time, more people in post-secondary education, and better communications systems helping individuals shape their own goals in more-fulfilling ways. Mr. Hodsoll is right - as far as he goes. But the statistics also give credibility to a widely discussed but poorly documented revolution: the so-called high-tech backlash.
In fact, the growth of the arts is far more than the fanciful dawdlings of a society refined by education, broadly informed through the mass media, and weary of its leisure. The cause for this growth lies much deeper: in the yearnings of the heart for that which feeds its deepest sense of beauty, order, impact, and feeling.
Such yearnings are not fed by the inexorable rationality of the computer. Nor , apparently, are they fed by the more mass-produced elements of our culture: Sales of books and television receivers, as well as movie tickets, flattened out during the recent recessionary years. On the rise, instead, are those things that speak directly of individual human endeavor: handmade craft items, paintings, and the host of arts (including theater, music, and dance) for which we use the highly significant adjective ''live.''
They are, indeed, ''live.'' They give us a sense of vibrancy. They provide occasions for serendipity. And they impel us toward the higher ideals without which man (as Charlie Chaplin made plain decades ago) is no more than a machine.In this high-tech age, we've already got enough machinery.No wonder the arts are on the rise.