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“La beauté est dans la rue” — so reads the slogan on a famous poster produced during May 1968 in the Atelier Populaire, the creative workshop of the French revolt. The image, which depicts a young woman hurling a cobblestone, echoes Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, with Marianne on the barricades holding a rifle with a bayonet as she waves a flag. The street has always been the space where equality and liberty are won, the space of struggles and thus also of beauty. It is in the street that History is made, that ideas are born and that — through the efforts of all combined — the world is brought into the world. Wasn’t this what the historical avant-gardes also said, when they called for the desertion of museums, galleries and institutional spaces, and for art to be brought into the streets? 1968, the last modern revolution, had a both futurist and Dadaist spirit; we could even say that the twentieth century began with the avant-gardes and ended in 1968. But wasn’t the street also the site of the Resistance (think, for example, of the famous Four Days of uprisings in Naples and the defence of Rome’s Porta San Paolo after 8 September 1943), of the Soviet Republics in Germany after World War I, of the Paris Commune of 1871, of the barricades of 1848, of the French Revolution, of the many jacqueries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, or even back to the Ciompi revolt in fourteenth century Florence? Similarly, going even further back, we can say that the very origin of Western civilisation is in the street, or rather the square: the agora, understood as an open space where citizens meet, discuss and decide on public affairs. Philosophy itself, as a specific meta-knowledge based on posing questions and agonistic dialogue, was born with Socrates in the streets and squares of Athens in the fifth century BC. Without that public space, it would be impossible to conceive of philosophy, as that critical knowledge which comes into conflict with the city, just as happened with Socrates, put on trial because he was accused of disturbing traditions and corrupting the youth with his questioning. The street is the source of philosophy as a democratic space par excellence; this is why it is also a dimension in which the tradition that fostered its development can itself be challenged. Such questioning is evidently not a matter of seeking to eliminate this space, but rather of making it work to the full, in the most optimal fashion. Theatre, after all, was also an action performed outdoors, in a public space, where citizens were called upon to meet and participate in a collective ritual designed to strengthen the ties of community.

There is, then, an inextricable link between the street and conflict. They make up the root of our democracy together with philosophy which — as we have already observed — corresponds to a knowledge based on questioning, constructed through a public controversy in which all are invited to participate. Philosophical thought cannot develop in the intimacy of the home, or in the isolation of the hermit’s cave: rather, it chooses the city, its streets and squares, for its setting. It is no coincidence that ancient Greece considered private space as primarily feminine, and public space as typically masculine: we need only read Aristophanes’s The Assemblywomen (a grotesque comedy satirising a world where women are in charge of politics) to understand the negative connotation of the private domain. (This prejudice is also at the basis of a series of false dichotomies such as nature and culture, activity and passivity, the lunar and solar, the feminine and masculine). Radicalising this line of thought, Aristotle would think of the “idiot” as a private individual, withdrawn into his own existence and averse to relations with others, while “man” — the political animal par excellence — is he who lives in the public dimension of the street.

Evidently, this way of constructing the contrast between the public and private spheres has the patriarchal limitation that we have here emphasised. As a result, it also has the considerable limit of silencing the radically political character of the private dimension, as asserted by the feminist movement, which brought out the many issues associated with it (“the personal is political”). Such an approach excludes one gender, hierarchically subjugating it to the other, and constructs a “Cartesian” idea of the world and public space. This idea would be dismantled first by ‘68 and the “feminism of difference”, then by cyberfeminism and queer theory, which instead composed a “multiversal” idea of public space.

Certainly, when it comes to the tightening of connections between the existential sphere and politics, we cannot fail to emphasise the role played by contemporary literature, and especially Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Published in 1957, it is considered the manifesto of an entire generation that identified the road itself with life. Travel, movement, adventure and discovery, life itself, take place on the road, a space understood as a metaphor for an existence that becomes political, even despite its own intentions. If for the exponents of the Beat Generation, this was still associated with an entirely individual experience, only ten years later the squares and cities of the world became the site of a great collective, generational revolt. And what was art’s place in all this? If we think of Baudelaire’s flânerie, we notice how the dimension of the street is made of the same stuff as modernism itself, since the metropolis and its public spaces — as Georg Simmel pointed out at the beginning of the twentieth century — become the sites of the life of the mind. And so, as we noted at the outset, the historical avant-gardes, and in particular futurism and dadaism, would invite art to take to the streets, but also to make the streets, and life in the cities, into genuine works of art. After World War II, it was above all the Situationist International that would take forward the idea of the avant-garde. With its intention of overcoming the bourgeois and modern concept of the artwork, it would identify the street as the site of the artistic-political event par excellence, realised through the practice of urban drift and the method of psychogeography. It was surely no accident that dadaism and futurism, as well as Fluxus and the Situationist International, had such an evident influence on the 1977 movement in Italy. And it was this same movement that made the street the performative place par excellence. It transformed political demonstrations into artistic happeningsin which Piero Gilardi would also participate with the La Comune collective. It was then, around 1977, that the great container called “public art” redesigned the possibilities of art’s encroachment outside institutional spaces, building direct relations with the streets, squares and urban neighbourhoods.

In Italy itself, in addition to the work of the late Alberto Garutti and the Stalkers (merely by way of example), in more recent years it has mainly been the generation between 40 and 50 years old which has developed a conception of art in relation to the street. Eugenio Tibaldi and Gian Maria Tosatti, Margherita Moscardini and Marinella Senatore, Bianco-Valente and Andreco, among others, have defined a series of artistic practices centrally aimed at building a relationship with common space. They have done so spurred by the belief that democracy can also be built and regenerated through the participatory processes prompted by locally rooted artworks or actions. This means taking the objects of privatisation (or which risk being privatised) and restoring them to the public dimension; reconstructing an urban fabric which has fallen victim to neglect and abandonment; and getting the community to have its say on the environmental impact of political choices that inevitably affect the life-quality of citizens, and thus their health. These are, it would seem, the cornerstones of a relationship with the street that would better be described as radically reformist than as revolutionary. Here, there is no romantic idea of storming and besieging. Rather, there is the more temperate climate of a day-by-day engagement, which points back to the ‘68er slogan mentioned above but replaces one preposition.  Instead of “in”, we have “with”: “Beauty is with the street”. This seems to be what twenty-first-century Italian art is saying.