Is Popeye art? Or Pogo, Garfield, Annie, Beetle Bailey, Barney Google, Dick Tracy, or Mickey Mouse? Can such beautifully drawn comic strips as ''Prince Valiant'' and ''Terry and the Pirates'' stand on their own as examples of superb draftsmanship? And will ''Peanuts'' ultimately make it into our major museums?
Even to ask these questions confuses many of us. We are not conditioned to view cartoons, comics, or caricatures as fine art. In fact, had anyone seriously raised these questions 30 or more years ago he would have been considered a fool. Art was art, and comics were comics - and that was that.
We knew, of course, that Picasso was a great fan of the American comic strip, just as he had been of early Charlie Chaplin films. But we dismissed that as just another example of the vagaries of his genius - in much the same way we dismissed the comments of a few other famous people who were impelled to speak highly of the comics.
We weren't quite so certain, however, after Pop Art monumentalized the comic strip and made it its own. Many of us were shocked and a bit dismayed to see 8 -by-10-foot versions of our comic-strip heroes hanging in our important museums, and even more disturbed to hear them described as among the most significant art of the century. But disturbed or not, it made us think, and a new respect for the makers of comics began to assert itself in our culture.
Galleries began to show a few individual strips, or the work of one or two outstanding comic-strip artists. Younger artists, who had few of their parents' objections to taking comics seriously, began using cartoon devices, and even the sequential strip form, in their art. And, to top it off, the Whitney Museum took it all seriously enough to sponsor ''The Comic Art Show'' here this past summer.
The comics, it seems, are here to stay, both as entertainment to be read and as objects to be admired on gallery and museum walls. They may not be taken as seriously as the art of Stella and Rothenberg, but neither, anymore, are they dismissed out of hand as of no real consequence.
To see for myself what an exhibition of comic-strip art looked like, I dropped in at the Gallery Felicie here to view its current showing of old and new comic favorites. I found an old ''Mutt and Jeff'' strip from 1913, several ''Popeyes'' from the 1940s, two full-page ''Prince Valiants,'' a very recent ''Garfield,'' and literally dozens of other strips depicting almost any cartoon character one could name.
Since the Gallery Felicie is the official representative of the Museum of Cartoon Art in Port Chester, N.Y., its selection covers a wide range of both humorous and serious political cartoons. Items that cannot be found on the walls will very likely be found in portfolios, and here and there the visitor will come upon a limited-edition print of a cartoon character, or specially hand-colored strips of ''Beetle Bailey'' or ''The Muppets.''
I was impressed all over again by the quality and detail, the sheer craftsmanship of the ''Prince Valiant'' Sunday pages. Since all works are shown in their original black-and-white, the viewer has an excellent opportunity to see how important drawing was to even the most richly colored strip. In this regard, as in so many others, ''Prince Valiant'' tops them all. Hal Foster, who created this very popular and long-running strip, was an excellent craftsman. His drawing was superb, and his layouts were so shrewdly planned that one is never aware of overcrowding, even though his compositions were truly encyclopedic when it came to authenticating detail.
And yet, ''Prince Valiant'' stands pretty much by itself. Its pictorial realities reflect the standards of 19th-century academic art much more than the hurly-burly realities of 20th-century life. We may admire and be enchanted by Foster's draftsmanship and technical skills, but it's not likely that ''Prince Valiant'' ever truly engaged us the way the various characters in ''Peanuts,'' ''Pogo,'' ''Bringing Up Father,'' ''B.C.,'' ''Popeye,'' and many others did - and do.
I was always more impressed by the skills Foster demonstrated in ''Prince Valiant'' than interested in the story he was telling. On the other hand, most comic artists evolve a style that seldom, if ever, calls attention to itself. The utter simplicity of the drawing in ''Peanuts,'' for instance, is perfectly appropriate to it, and the same is true of the style of ''B.C.'' and ''Garfield.''
A brilliant technique means little to most comic-strip artists. What matters is getting the idea or story across. If Walt Kelly, who created ''Pogo,'' preferred his strip to have a certain elegance, well and good, but there were many other artists who felt differently - or who did not have Kelly's skills. I was never sure, for instance, that the creators of ''Mutt and Jeff'' and of ''Popeye'' could actually ''draw'' in the generally accepted sense of the word. And yet it never made a difference in their strips' effectiveness.
This becomes particularly obvious as one studies the various styles on view at the Gallery Felicie. They range from the exquisitely rendered to the most casual. But what counts most is the strip's main character, and what he, she, or it does when confronted by life's vagaries. This, of course, underscores the storytelling nature of this art form. It can be episodic (''Hager the Horrible''), narrative (''Prince Valiant''), or comment on specific human foibles (''Grin and Bear It''). But whatever form it takes, it is primarily a storytelling device that entertains us.
As such, cartoons and comic strips fall into the general category of folk art. They entertain and poke fun, tickle our funny bone, and satirize, but they do not concern themselves with the broader formal or thematic dimensions of reality that are the basis of more serious forms of art. It is important that we keep that in mind when we pay our respects to what is good in comic-strip art. I'm delighted to see Popeye, Pogo, Dick Tracy, and the rest sharing occasional gallery space with Matisse, Diebenkorn, and Cucchi, and even hanging in our museums from time to time. But to claim high-art status for them is to becloud the entire issue of art.
I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition at the Gallery Felicie, at 141 East 56th Street, and plan to see more of my old and new comic favorites there. Prices are reasonable, running from $50 for a single-frame image, to $1,200 for a large, full-page ''Prince Valiant.''
I also recommend the excellent exhibition of ''Pogo'' strips and full Sunday pages at the Graham Gallery at 1014 Madison Avenue. It includes work from 1958 to 1971, and will run through Oct. 22. New gallery
Very few art dealers ever make it into the art-history books, but there's no doubt that Betty Parsons will. She was much too important and influential not to.
Abstract Expressionism, for one thing, owes her a great debt for her early support, and the artists of subsequent art movements found her an open and generous friend as well. The roster of her artists reads like a Who's Who of American Art, and goes back all the way to Pollock, Stamos, Rothko, Hofmann, Still, Rauschenberg - and forward to some of today's more talented younger artists.
Her gallery, however, is no more. For the first time in over 40 years, a New York art season opens without the Betty Parsons Gallery. Attempts were made to keep it going after her passing last year, but it became too difficult and it was closed last June.
Her old space at 24 West 57th Street has been taken over, however, by Jack Tilton, the young man who was her assistant for several years, and who then became the director of her gallery. Mr. Tilton is also interested in artists with new ideas, and also plans to focus on younger and not-yet-recognized painters and sculptors.
I suspect he'll do well. At least I hope so. We need all the enthusiastic, open-minded, and alert younger dealers we can get.
Beginning next week, ''On Art'' will appear on Mondays.m