Roger Waters in Concert: Art and Politics in Times of Crisis

Roger Waters, renowned musician and activist, co-founder of the band Pink Floyd and its creative engine from 1968 to 1984, is currently running his concert and multimedia installation This is not an exercise across North America. At least one million people are expected to attend the performances.

The tour, which stopped in Detroit on July 23, uses Waters’ extensive artistic catalog to condemn the cruelty of the ruling elite in the United States and around the world. Virtually all the songs are directed to pressing issues of our time: imperialist war, fascism, the poison of nationalism, the plight of refugees, the victims of state oppression, global poverty, social inequality, the attack on democratic rights and the danger of nuclear annihilation. .

Roger Waters in concert in 2018. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Such an event, so unusual and so important, demands special consideration, above all because it elevates to a high and pressing level, in the real experience of many people, the question of the problem between art and politics in a time of unprecedented crisis. crisis.

The Detroit concert was a remarkable musical, visual and intellectual experience. This is not an exercise incorporates many memorable songs from Pink Floyd’s catalog while Waters was still at the helm, but never becomes a nostalgic tour. Waters, in fact, doesn’t want anyone to “forget about their problems for a while.” His main concern throughout the evening was to ensure that the songs corresponded to current social and political developments.

A lesser-known song from Waters’ solo work, “The Powers That Be” (1987), is performed thunderously against images of police shootings and military bombings. The imagery ends with a textual memorial to nearly two dozen victims of police brutality in the United States and other countries. Angry protests from the public grew with each death notice.

On the searing 1992 anti-war song “The Bravery of Being Out of Range”, Waters incorporates images of every US president since Ronald Reagan with descriptions of their murderous foreign policies and superimposes the words “War Criminal” over each. As for Joe Biden, Waters notes that he is “just getting started.” To the crescendo of the song – which has the memorable chorus “Old timer, who are you gonna kill next?” – a sudden red audio-visual explosion envelops the audience, intended to give an idea of ​​what it must be like to be shot down by a drone or military aircraft.

At the end of the nightmarish 1972 song “Run Like Hell,” moving images change to video footage of a US military helicopter firing missiles at a residential neighborhood. The text explains that these were real images of 10 civilians and journalists killed in Iraq in 2007. It adds that the video was “courageously disclosed by Chelsea Manning” and “courageously published by Julian Assange”. The installation is then adorned with the words “Free Julian Assange” and “Lock Up The Killers”, generating some of the loudest cheers of the evening.

The performance ends on a high and ominous note, richly stretched. Waters’ band perform a medley of songs from the legendary 1972 for the first time The dark side of the moon album—“Us and Them,” “All the Colors You Like,” and “Brain Damage.” Everyone’s ever-growing chorus is set to gradually multiply images, possibly hundreds of them, of people all over the world. They are portraits of a wide range of human beings – adolescent war victims, industrial workers, mothers, sick children, homeless. It’s human, unifying imagery, culminating in a giant panorama at the end of “Brain Damage.” It’s a reminder from Waters of all there is to lose in the world.

This medley was immediately followed by the lesser known but powerful “Two Suns in the Sunset” (1983). Waters introduces the song with references to the current dangers of nuclear war, making clear the US and NATO instigated war against Russia in Ukraine, involving the world’s greatest nuclear powers. The initial pastoral and vividly animated imagery of an individual driving through the countryside changes character in chilling ways. We realize that the “brightness” emanates from the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb, which incinerates large masses of people in the visuals.

Conventional wisdom, pumped by countless literary and musical journals, taught in every art and drama school, is that art and politics, like oil and water, had better not be mixed. Various edifying examples from the past are regularly produced to intimidate young artists, to make them understand the madness of social commitment. But, more generally still, the dominant notion is that the aesthetic element is a thing existing in itself, a value which has little or nothing to do with the life and concerns of the great masses of people, as if the the artist who creates an aesthetic form and the public who enjoys it are empty machines, one for creating the form and the other for appreciating it.

If the artist, according to the official version, has strong opinions, it is better to keep them to himself. And many artists and musicians, unfortunately, live up to these notions. But Waters is not one of them. The whole concert tour is a deliberate and conscious refutation of such ideas. An opening message on the media installation clarifies: “If you’re one of those people who love Pink Floyd, but I can’t stand Roger’s politics, you better fuck off at the bar right now. .” How appropriate and eloquent! In reality, how could art in our time of unprecedented turmoil and suffering be meaningful if it did not have the element of protest? What would he say to his audience? The artist who accepts the false dichotomy between art and politics, who knows his “true place”, will end up meaning very little to anyone and will certainly not last.

The powers that be recognize the danger. However This is not an exercise received favorable media coverage, there is a distinct lack of reporting on it in the mainstream press. Waters recently spoke out against the Toronto media after they refused to provide meaningful coverage of her two-night performance there. Critics prefer their music without the angry annoyance.

The decision to ignore Waters’ performance in Toronto must be linked to his opposition to the US-NATO war against Russia in Ukraine. The musician took a principled stance on the conflict. While strongly opposing the reactionary Russian invasion, Waters said a “long insurgency in Ukraine would be great for the gangster hawks in Washington. This is what they dream of. »

It’s impossible not to be moved by Waters’ socially engaged and historically informed musical performance, a fusion of serious artistry and incisive political analysis. Waters does not present a systematically developed political perspective, much less the program of a particular tendency. which finds expression in This is not an exercise is a deep indignation against injustice, against war, against hypocrisy and official lies.

Waters at 78, possessing the energy and spirit of someone half his age, is not leading a nostalgic tour. Other artists his age continue to travel and play their old hits, presumably making a living. The vast majority, especially those whose art was rooted in the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles of the 1960s, lost their anger decades ago. They have made their social and artistic peace with society. They must continue to perform their original material, as they have nothing new and important to say. Worse, they may even have a Kennedy Center Honor, that “broad rainbow ribbon” of shame hung around the neck of American presidents whose hands are soaked in blood.

Waters, on the other hand, is not a “legend”, that is to say a relic. He remains a living, working, thinking artist. He is always engaged, always forward. His work is a serious artist’s response to the conditions of his time.

The three-hour performance was a tour de force, which involves the participation of master musicians. Waters proves in practice at every performance on this tour the truth of Leon Trotsky’s proposition that “a protest against reality…is always part of a truly creative work” and that every new trend in art – and such installation-concert should be seen as a “new trend” – “started with rebellion”.

Waters is a serious artist and, therefore, unfailingly honest, audacious in his conceptions of the world. His striking art and his opposition to the existing social system intertwine, feed each other. It is not an artificial “leftism” grafted on an artificial and superficial “radicalism”, anxious not to exceed the accepted limits. Waters absorbed the “rebellion” into his bones and marrow a very long time ago, and he continues to live and breathe it. It inspires audiences to think critically, to feel outrage at what exists, and to believe that a new and better world can and should come into being.

Christopher S. Washington