I have an ongoing debate with my partner about whether the American future will be Beirut-style terrible or just sort of Detroit-style terrible. I'm the pessimist. I was reminded of this by Trisha Ready's essay in the July 3 Stranger about how her identity started dissolving as her buying power dropped off, and how frightening that was, considering what's coming. The essay was called "United States of Anxiety." I could relate. But I am reassured by one thing: Even if I lost my house and my job and had virtually nothing left, I could still see a lot of art.

Art has always been the property of the wealthy. Today, CEOs and moguls own it. The wealthiest people in every city are members of the board of directors for the local museum, rather than theater or orchestra, because museums have the most to protect in actual physical assets. You could say that art is the province of the upper class, but you'd be wrong.

The vast majority of people don't even enter art's primary economy, the buying and selling of art, but they interact consistently with art's secondary economy, the viewing economy. We don't pay for art; we pay for the right to see it. And mostly, we pay very little. To see the permanent collection at Seattle Art Museum, it's pay what you can. (I wish the same were true of the museum's imported "special" exhibitions.) The Frye Art Museum is always free. The Henry Art Gallery is $10 (does it really have to be this much, Hank?), but if you're a student of any kind, it's free, so parents don't have to pay for kids. Commercial galleries, paradoxically, are always free. You could spend a worse day than going gallery to gallery, but you could not spend a cheaper one. Some days, just for going in, you get free wine and snacks. This is, or should be, the province of the poor.

I'm not so naive to think that if the American economy tanks, we'll all be able to continue to see the great stuff that the locally wealthy buy on our viewing behalf. In fact, if art-market trends continue, Russia and China will eventually be the best places to see recent and new art, since collectors from those countries are snapping up what's for sale. And if there is a war on American soil, well, all bets are off.

But for now, while fear is the worst of it and we still have just enough money to visit a museum but not enough for the opera or the theater, it's an art- appreciation economy. recommended