‘Art Rebels’ Squeezes Miles Davis and Martin Scorsese into the Same Box

Paul Lopes's Art Rebels is a study that tries (and only partly succeeds) to fit two great artists -- Miles Davis and Martin Scorsese -- into clearly defined categories.

Art Rebels: Race, Class, and Gender in the Art of Miles Davis and Martin Scorsese
Paul Lopes
Princeton University Press
Jun 2019

Dual critical studies of major artistic cultural figures of the 20th century are powerful if they come with even a modicum of connective tissue. If that is absent, the reader interested in these figures will spend the bulk of their reading time desperately trying to find that common bond. Logic should tell us that a solid three-part thesis, which is what we have with Art Rebels: Race, Class, and Gender in the Art of Miles Davis and Martin Scorsese, is usually enough to justify examining one artistic giant with the extra benefit that their time on earth has long since passed and their legacy of posthumous releases has apparently been exhausted.

Unfortunately, trying to shoehorn another equally important artist into a book-length examination of the complexities that come with their very identities (e.g., Miles Davis and Martin Scorsese) makes for a text that is thin in many ways. Race, Class, and Gender are valid trees in this forest of ideas, a means by which to examine the legacy of one giant and the status of another in the autumn of his years, but they come with their own complex and tangled web of branches. When they’re not recognized in the course of this examination, the end result makes for a frustrating text not worthy of a dual examination let alone solo artistic study.

Paul Lopes‘s Art Rebels starts in a somewhat promising way, but the ideas introduced are larger than the final product released. Lopes begins with the premise that the three decades following World War II are the Heroic Age of American Art, an overall rebellion against the institutional structures of (in the case of this book) American Jazz and the confines of the Hollywood film system. His idea is that the careers (which he calls “public stories”) of Davis and Scorsese defined rebellion. Lopes writes:

“…no other artists from their generation of rebels remained as independent, innovative, outspoken, and successful over their extended careers.”

Already, the reader with even a cursory familiarity with the careers of Davis and Scorsese might have problems with this premise. Miles Davis was a giant of American jazz from his early recording career in the 1950s through to his final studio album released (posthumously) in 1992. Davis packed an amazing amount of material (studio releases and live performances) in those years, along with (as Lopes details) an outspoken and unapologetic sense of self. Scorsese’s first studio release, Who’s That Knockin’ at My Door? was in 1967, and his latest,The Irishman, is scheduled as both a theatrical and Netflix streaming release in September 2019. Lopes wants to examine the “public stories, biographical legends, and art” of both Davis and Scorsese, but the latter (even as a 76-year-old man) is still a moving and vital force in American cinema.

Lopes is correct when he notes that the Heroic Age came when “…avante garde or independent art became a permanent objective and subjective element of the American art field.” Is Scorsese’s embrace of Netflix a surrender to the inevitable (that truly independent visionary films cannot compete against the comic book superhero blockbusters), or is it a rebellious strike for independence the likes of which his generation would have gladly fought 40 years (after the first “death” of independent cinema)? It’s a question worth considering that Lopes doesn’t ask.

There are some good ideas as we enter this text. The Heroic Age was driven by autonomy, innovation, and legitimacy. The rock ‘n’ roll exploitation films of the 1950s spoke to that rebellious streak, while Modern jazz of the same era wanted to break new ground. Lopes argues that the United States has always been based on the idea of institutionalized racism, and that color-blind ideology “…in the post-civil rights era works to delegitimize the supposed identity politics of African-Americans…” working (we assume) mainly within the confines of Jazz. Lopes spends time discussing the bifurcation of Jazz, how some (including Davis) believed the form was best meant to be performed by and for people of color (Dave Brubeck couldn’t swing), but he doesn’t go any deeper with this division. Lopes writes:

“…blackness was an ongoing process of reimagining where the white racial lens and white privilege constantly worked against efforts on the part of African Americans to construct a self-defined, full-dimensional social identity.”

Lopes attempts to connect Scorsese with Davis, but the reader gets the sense that he seems to understand that Davis’s story is stronger. (A cursory search of this text’s origins reveals that it was originally “under contract” as Art Rebels: Miles Davis, Martin Scorsese, Art Spiegelman, and the Transformation of American Art in the 20th Century. One can only imagine how convoluted early drafts might have been.) Of Scorsese, Lopes writes:

“Moving from a Plymouth Rock myth to an Ellis Island myth, white immigrants viewed their history as immigrants as the foundation of modern America.”

Lopes argues that Scorsese started his public story as “an unmeltable Italian American to a cheerleading white ethnic American at the start of the twenty-first century.” Again, the reader familiar with Scorsese’s work might have a problem with this premise. While most of the man’s films have highlighted the journey of men (American or otherwise), the idea that he has been a cheerleader is hard to consistently see, especially in such heartlessly cynical celebrations of scoundrels like Jordan Belfort in 2013’s Wolf of Wall Street. More convincing is the idea that both artists were deeply involved in exploring hypermasculinity. In “How to Read this Book and Why” in the Introduction that sets out guidelines and makes claims about what was considered and how the search was conducted (major research as indicated by 22 pages of end notes), Lopes writes:

“My intention is to use the public stories of Davis and Scorsese to explore the structured meanings that informed American art around questions of autonomy, rebellion, race, ethnicity, class, and gender.”

The ideas are ambitious and the attempt evident, but the end result is sorely lacking. At least three times in the final paragraph, when Lopes begins sentences with “My work presents…”, “My work also expands…”, and “I also show…”, the reader naturally hopes that the claims will be achieved. Unfortunately, it’s only text that starts with noble intentions but ends up repeating itself. Through the course of the next two parts (“Rebels Making Art” and “The Biographical Legends of Rebels”) the reader starts to feel like they’re on a circular train ride at their local town fair. The scenery is interesting, but after a few times around the track, it gets tiresome.

We start with “Miles Davis: Jazz, race, and Negotiating the Popular”. Immediately, Lopes starts with the 1991 death of Davis and the argument that Wynton Marsalis was a “counterrevolutionary traditionalist”. Marsalis viewed Davis’s 1969 move to fusion rock “…as one of the greatest disasters in the history of jazz.” Lopes brings us quickly from Davis’s “cool jazz” of the early 1950s, through his work with Gil Evans and more. By 1955, when Davis claimed that white jazz musicians Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck “could not swing”, there was already trouble for Davis’s unapologetic, blunt public story. Lopes goes deep into the idea of music and race, but it seems even he knows it’s something that needs more elaboration. “Race music has always been a part of the agenda black professional musicians in the twentieth century,” he writes. It was all about the “…inescapable conflict between those who pursued a race-conscious black music and resented the white appropriation…and fans who only saw a white admiration…”

The reader interested in pursuing these ideas will be frustrated by paths not taken. For a while, it seems Davis is in the background while we read quotes from other artists that “…Jazz is Jim Crow. It belongs to another era, another time, another place. We’re playing free music.” Call it jazz fusion or fusion jazz, Miles Davis was credited by Time (in 1976) “…for a boom in records, festivals, clubs, and college-campus performances that heralded a New Jazz Age.” Lopes notes that by the 1970s, “…Davis was no longer an independent, creative force in jazz, but was a commercial-and-celebrity-obsessed musician seeking to retain his iconic status and high earnings.” What is a jazz fan? Still in this opening section, Lopes includes a 1982 quote from Wynton Marsalis: “A lot of avant-garde cats are charlatans anyway. They sound like Europeans.”

It’s hard to tell at this point where Lopes wants to take us. Wynton Marsalis and his mentor Stanley Crouch are seen as the anti-Miles Davis. “For over thirty years, Davis was not only the icon of modern jazz but also an undisputed icon in the African-American community as the quintessential cool, unrepentant, brilliant race man…Marsalis represented a new race man in modern jazz, more similar to the premodern jazz race man sophistication and elegance of Duke Ellington.” It’s hard not to dispute the notion that Davis remained a harsh, mercurial, independent man to his death, in his last years embracing hip-hop music into his never-ending search for a singular voice, but the argument seems rushed and cluttered. Lopes notes that Davis operated with commercial savvy, a rebel attitude, and “…insatiable creative drives, and an intuitive sense of the popular” throughout his life and career, but each element is a road not taken and the reader wishes more effort was made (perhaps in a singular critical volume) to examine these factors. The introduction of Wynton Marsalis as a Davis antagonist rather than a logical indication of where jazz has been and will be in the future is an exit that wasn’t worth taking.

By the time Lopes gets to Martin Scorsese, the picture of the artist as a young man is one that’s well known and easily understood. He “…made personally relevant and artistically powerful movies but also sought the big budgets and mass audiences only Hollywood could provide.” Those who have followed his career will be reminded of Scorsese regularly connecting with his characters. From Charlie in Mean Streets (1973), Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), and Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2002), he has always sought a common bond with the characters, no matter how despicable.

Lopes seems to feel that Scorsese’s public story might explain his body with the characters. “His public story does not portray him as innately artistic, or innately intellectual.” Experimental film, which had its apotheosis in the 1960s while Scorsese was in film school, shared with independent directors the desire to draw on personal narratives. The difference in the experimental world (which really seems to be another similarity) is that both worlds were a small population of “us” versus a much larger population of “them”.

Lopes develops an interesting and compelling narrative here, though once again its concentrated tone is frustrating. Critic Pauline Kael despised the experimental world. Scorsese drew inspiration from it while building his own oeuvre of stories. By 1980, after the release of Raging Bull, Lopes argues that the “New Hollywood” that started with 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde was effectively over. There’s a quick tour through Scorsese’s films that ends with 2016’s Silence, an art house historical epic of the highest order. “I am the movies I make,” Lopes quotes Scorsese. “…My old parish priest once told me that my work has too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday.” Lopes concludes Part One with this indication of religiosity in the work of Martin Scorsese, and the reader familiar with Scorsese’s films will feel frustrated that more was not explored about faith and belief. Race, Class and Gender were certainly huge factors in Scorsese’s films, but religion (organized or not) certainly superseded all of them.

Lopes introduces Part II, “The Biographical Legends of Rebels”, by claiming that both Davis and Scorsese “…openly connected their artistic visions with their racial identity.” His point is spelled out in further detail:

“Two starkly different biographical legends emerged: one of an ‘unreconstructed’ black man…and another…an ‘unmeltable’ Italian American who became, over time, a quintessential white ethnic American.”

We do get these ideas clearly spelled out, but Lopes seems to be repeating himself. Again, when he tells us (rather than shows us) that this “…chapter is about…”, he writes himself into a corner. Certainly, the “actions, demeanors, and words…” of a personality as forceful as Davis reflected his legacy, but Lopes (and by default this text) is over-dependent on his source material. Again, this is not to say that the work is not legitimate. Instead, what we have here is a thorough examination that still feels quick, rushed, and cursory. Give a deeper exploration to the idea that Davis was hostile to the white music business. Lopes writes:

“I argue that the basic view of Davis as angry, enigmatic…racist…was shaped significantly by a white interpretation of Davis as an outspoken, unreconstructed black man…”

“The Unreconstructed black man in Modern Jazz” chapter probably works best as a separate longform essay. In it, he explores the idea of Davis as the “Prince of Darkness”, the hyper-sexuality implied in reviews of Davis’s work. Lopes draws additionally from Davis’s controversial 1989 autobiography, “…his condensed package of badass-ness…”, and he does not shy away from the more violent aspects of his subject. Lopes writes:

“…It is this normalization of Davis and other famous males’…violence towards women that remains as much a poison in America as the racism of the New Jim Crow.”

It’s this inability (or unwillingness?) to further explore these ideas that make this book frustrating. As Lopes gives us the Scorsese chapter, “A Sojourn from Italian American to White Ethnic American”, the reader will probably still be struggling to find a connection between our two subjects. Lopes notes that Scorsese’s work was about the connection between biography, social history, and cinematic tradition.” It’s hard to see anything in Scorsese’s story of ethnic assimilation and identity comparable to the greater risks Davis endured trying to suppress righteous rage against the institutionalized racism of White America.

Lopes does, however, effectively argue that Scorsese is the last of his Italian-American filmmaker generation (including Francis Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Michael Cimino) to keep embracing and expressing his ethnicity. His characters might have been seen as ethnic stereotypes then and now, but he grew with them. He found himself in the Irish immigrants from Gangs of New York (2002), the Jewish gangsters of Casino (1995), and (as noted) the Irish in The Irishman (2019) and Irish Boston gangsters in The Departed (2006). His work was always steeped in the notion of the new immigrant and the American experience.

Perhaps the only real explicit thematic artistic connection that can be made between Scorsese and Davis is in the former’s New York, New York, (1977), in which the saxophone-playing hero, a white man thriving in the immediacy of life after 1945’s VJ Day, has to adjust to the resistance he felt making a name for himself in the jazz world.

Lopes manages to bring his reader up to date with Scorsese, briefly examining how “…auterism and independence remain crucial motivating forces…” in his life and career. Unfortunately, in his final section, “American Rebels Redux” Lopes seems to know he needs to draw in other elements. He jumps back and forth to hyper-masculinity and racial identity and shows like HBO’s The Deuce. (Another major problem in this section includes a typo that lists the release date of Taxi Driver as 1973 rather than 1976. Those three years make a world of difference in the life and career of Scorsese and DeNiro and one hopes this mistake is corrected in future editions.) He does manage to effectively explain (and justify) his inclusion of Scorsese for this book, but teaming him with Davis still seems tenuous at best:

“There was no ethnic minefield awaiting Scorsese, just a large demand in the white racial imagination for the celebration of symbolic ethnicity and a fascination for Italian Americans…”

Just when the reader thinks the problems might be over, Lopes drops this claim: “Kanye West seems to be the contemporary embodiment of Miles Davis.” It’s a very rushed conclusion that brings in racial implications in the work and actions of Adele, Lady Gaga, and their weaving through hypermasculinity (black and white) or “black girl magic” of artists like Beyonce. It’s certainly interesting and definitely controversial, but ultimately it feels as if Lopes is on a supermarket spree as he ends Art Rebels. He’s pushing a shopping cart up and down the aisles of his local superstore, throwing everything he can fit into his strong but wobbly carriage, through the course of 200 pages (sans endnotes and index.) It’s just too bad he doesn’t have enough money or commitment to cover his purchases once he gets to the checkout line.