The activism of protest movements and the artistic research represent, in the tradition of Western societies, the forces of thought in which the most important forms of criticism of the systems of power develop. In the first case, we have a social critique, structured and articulated from the bottom up, from the analysis of direct problems concerning the rights of individuals and communities, organized with precise actions that aim at equally precise results.
From the art, from many of its aims and among its epiphanies, aesthetic criticism instead manifests itself; starting as the social critique from a feeling of rejection towards the bourgeois and then capitalist world, it moves in non-decoded territories, tackles ethical, social and cultural issues on a symbolic level, and in this way it defines its own existence, founded on the impossibility of subjecting the autonomy of artistic research to the moral and operational needs of political discourse. Because of this specificity, the aesthetic criticism seems incomprehensible and ineffective, if not completely fraudulent to those who organize a protest articulating a program of priorities, requests and oppositions, taking to the streets the protest, animating the marches, gathering partisan adhesions to the cause of the struggle against the unfair system of capitalism.
But, as sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello suggest, since 1968 social and aesthetic criticism has intensified the flow of their exchanges (and of crossings and overlaps), coming to have a parallel influence in cultural processes together with conscious comparisons and sporadic (not always very successful) alliances1. Their approach has among its causes the maturation of a social transformation that since the late 50’s had brought mass culture to heavily influence the construction of language and to fragment the epicentres of its production increasing so their accessibility. For the same reason, at the beginning of the 80’s, the understanding between art and activism is tarnished, compressed by the vertiginous rise of new forms of capitalism. In the post-ideological world, social criticism has long been unable to face the renewed tactics of the adversary. The aesthetic criticism instead has often been surreptitiously incorporated by capitalism, moving away from protest movements that believe it submissive to the plans of the order to be contested.
The chronicle of a mutual misunderstanding which with a few, shining exceptions, characterises the history of the last two centuries, is so renewed, a misunderstanding based mostly on the irreducible autonomy of artists, challenged by social criticism and by the political activism of all the time that ask art – and not just the artist – to stand up unequivocally. For their part, the artists claim the importance of an emancipation that can act unconditionally even within the systems: cracking them, operating in the margin of that condition of exceptionality that allows the art to express the unspeakable, the illegitimate and the scandalous, without being sanctionable as it happens for social criticism.
Supporters of the militant struggle are right when they declare that art does not adopt direct strategies; artists are equally right in defending the primacy of their autonomy. The missed encounter, in fact, does not concern the political or ethical convergence between social criticism and aesthetic criticism, but the type of objective that moves the respective manifestations. The first one, needs to be unequivocal and to reach precise segments of society, the second one, being subtracted from the obligation of the function, does not have what I have elsewhere defined a problem of clarity: the recipient of the art “is reached for how it is and not for how (according to who formulates the content) it should be. Art expresses itself on a space whose coordinates are not clear, precisely to allow unconditional reading ”2. Both the social and the aesthetic criticism imply the thought that another form of the world is possible, the first one addresses the present or a near future, the second one is forever.