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  • Writer's pictureBrian Keeler

The Art of Hell & Horizons of Hope -an essay on inversions of normality

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

An essay reflecting on politics, poetry and painting- by Brian Keeler

The art of hell is, well, a vision of a place one would not one to hang out in for too long. There is not a lot of hugging going on there. The visual expressions of it come mainly from some great artists of the renaissance and beyond. Botticelli, the Florentine painter of the 15th century produced dozens of illustrations of Dante’s Inferno as did the French artist Gustave Dore. Luca Signorelli, the renaissance artist from Cortona comes to mind for me however. His frescos in the San Brizio chapel in the cathedral in Orvieto are recalled as the most vivid depiction and the most accomplished figure paintings of any artists. I have often taken my students there to marvel at his virtuosity. The front facade of the cathedral is replete with carved marble figurative sculpture- mostly visions of damnation as a cautionary tale to the populace.

One of the frescos of Signorelli in the San Brizio chapel in Orvieto- in Umbria. The girl on the back of the devil in the center has been rumored to be an ex girlfriend of the painter.

In front of the cathedral in Orvieto, two students (Judy Caccavale and Justin Dempsey) in Brian Keeler's painting workshop, inspect the marble sculpture.

My intention here is to make some connections between the fire and brimstone, if not preachy warnings of yore to some parallels of today.

I have read, as of late, and over the last four years of this political fiasco of incredible inversions and flipping worldviews along with fickle allegiances, facile appraisals and unbelievable distortions. I am speaking of the strife and angst of the political world and seeing decades, if not centuries of civil progression cast asunder, yes mainly by one bombastic demagogue of no virtue whatsoever. As the election approaches many of us are in a white-knuckle state, as the soul of our country seems to be up for grabs.

There have been so many eloquent appraisals and insightful analysis by commentators whom I trust and authors whose work I’ve appreciated. So many of these honest fessing-ups come also from former heads of state or functionaries in the legal sphere of the DT. A virtual tidal wave of articulate accounts has been made available to us of the massive dysfunction and violation of trust from the Whitehouse. Every week there’s a new account from someone of authority or of the inner circle; John Bolton, Mary Ann Trump, Bob Woodward’s (two insider books), Michael Cohen and so many more. They are all probably discounted as liberal hacks by the DT’s faithful. Come on, I mean, is John Bolton, a liberal hack?

We’ve all known how corrupt and feckless the DT is since before the election. This guy Donnie was a preposterous stooge then and he’s only devolved further into a gross caricature of himself. Some told us to give the guy a chance. Well, beginning with his horrendous inauguration speech full of contempt and disdain for American institutions and individuals, it only got worse. Much worse.

With that said, I still feel compelled to comment and make an appraisal – if for nothing else, just personal reckoning and processing.

Many have expressed exasperation with the base of the DT’s followers for not “getting it” and continuing with their unbelievable allegiance in the face of a mountain of transgressions. We hear they fall asleep at night watching Fox News or listening to blowhard gas bags like Rush Limbaugh. We had still hoped for a glimmer of integrity or some evidence of a backbone from the GOP. Not to be apparently.

There is some hope however, at least the polls are showing an awakening. In today’s (normally conservative) Wall Street Journal, the columnist, William Galston shows us that American values are finally becoming more of a determining factor than ever before- and swaying Americans into an awareness of simple right and wrong. He believes that this awakening portends Trump’s defeat.

I occassionally think back to my childhood in regards to American values. Growing up in a small town a certain idealism can be wistfully entertained. In retrospect all the people of influence in Wyalusing, our teachers, our parents, scoutmasters, coaches of sports teams, church and civic leaders all seemed to have a moral compass. As one evangelical supporter of Trump lamented; he could not imagine our current president as a Sunday school teacher. Thank God! Could we imagine the DT in any of our borough council meetings or on the board of a local business- flinging his insults and perpetuating conspiracies? As one op-ed commentator opined, the DT turns everything he touches into crap.

I have been availed on occasion of some of the sordid underbelly of this political group and their positively wacko reasoning and belief in hair brain schemes, cockamamie conspiracy theories and incredible distortions of history. These maligning and dangerous diatribes are abundant and proliferating like rats on garbage. These former fringe elements and beliefs could be laughed off if they weren’t so dangerous and condoned and abetted by the commander in chief and promoted by tens of thousands of regular Americans.

Take what I see coming from my hometown and the region of rural northeast PA as a rubric for the pit of ignorance. As one example, I have seen in photos in the regional papers of Trump rallies in Tunkhannock and Wyalusing where Confederate Flags are being flown alongside of the Stars and Stripes. At least there is a modicum of scruples, maybe, as there have been no swastikas flying yet. But often the two go together; the racism of the 1860’s and all the inherent cruelty that flag represents and the Nazi flag of the mid-20th century with the horrors of that regime. I wonder how they reckon with statues of American Civil War soldiers in front of the courthouse in Towanda and elsewhere who fought to defeat those carrying the confederate flags? Who knows what kind of distorted ideas that they have of wearing confederate flag T-shirts etc? – some puerile idea of rebellion perhaps. Once again, a great inversion, if not a perversion of values and history seems to have overtaken America like a pestilence.

"Allegory of the Slippery Slope" An oil painting by Brian Keeler based on the famous painting Peter Bruegel of "The Blind Leading the Blind." In this case Mr Trump leading the unfortunate into a chasm with the help of Nazis, KKK and confederate flag toting folk.

Then there is this trope of railing against antifa, rolling so easily out of the mouths of republicans. My response is; "For crying out loud, are you “profa?” Every American should be “antifa” ! Hundreds of thousands died in World War Two fighting fascists in Italy, Germany and before that in Spain. Even though Trump is a textbook example of a Fascist, it is too charitable to refer to him as a member of this camp. He is merely a stupid blathering buffoon with no ideology or beliefs – only interest that serve his own vanity and financial greed.

As long as I am on a roll, how about the debates? Last night's event was more civil than the first but not normal by any measurement due to the continual lying by the sitting president. This is how the falsification was characterized by Daniel Dale of CNN; “From a lying perspective, Trump is even worse tonight than in the first debate … an absolute avalanche of lying.”

As the title of this essay suggests, my concern is with how so many values and principles have been distorted and grossly co-opted for right wing advancement. Another example from Pennsylvania, a letter to the editor of last week, opined that my father and others in our town of his generation were fighting during world war two to protect the agenda of Trump. As we witnessed a couple years ago, Trump was too concerned with the rain to visit the cemetery of WWII fallen in France, or his denigrating John McCain, or undermining 70 years or NATO peace keeping efforts- we can only wonder how long the veterans who fought on Omaha Beach or stormed into Anzio would stomach this kind disrespect. The distortions and ignorance expressed in this letter are simply breathtaking, but what is worse, is that it is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

The New York Times had their week in review section of last Sunday devoted entirely to the challenging task of bringing to light the immense damage Trump has done to our country in the last four years. One observation referred to the reconstruction ahead after he is voted out in a few weeks. That word “reconstruction” brings to mind the American Civil War and the aftermath of rebuilding the war ravaged country. In effect Trump has fomented a civil division not unlike that of the 1860’s. At every opportunity he has done the exact opposite of what would have been beneficial. From advocating armed take overs by right wing paramilitary groups to actually condoning the abduction of the Michigan Governor. “There are some very good people in the KKK” according to Trump. Has it really come to this level of depravity? He should be tried for sedition and insurrection and impeached again and again.

It was mentioned in my hometown paper and elsewhere that this national tragedy of the pandemic was our generation’s equivalent to a Pearl Harbor attack- and by others as the equivalent of the terrorist attack of September 11. Remember the refrain; “We are all Americans now.” It wasn’t to be- primarily because of the divider-in-chief. He was a virtual font of colossal stupidity and disinformation and his enabler par excellent Mike Pence as the head of the COVID-19 response team, overseeing the deaths of over 200 thousand. Instead of uniting us, Trump did only what he can do best- cast blame, leave the states to fend for themselves and advocate incredibly irresponsible health practices. Can we imagine the presidents during WWII or after 9/11 to tell the states to fend for themselves? What about the pledge of the allegiance with, “one nation indivisible..” ? This is probably too federalist I suppose for republicans, as they have a strong aversion to anything resembling a central government.

In a word, all this strife could be described as factionalism. And that is what the poet Dante laments about in his writings. He attributes all of Florence’s woes and troubles to the Guelph And Ghibelline parties of his day. Partisan politics have been around for a very long time apparently.

But back to my theme of distortions and falsifications – we only need think of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former press secretary who Frank Bruni of the NY Times suggested had accomplished the moral inversion of the universe by being a lackey for the DT. What could be worse than being a liar for the liar?

An illustration of how Dante conceived of hell, an inverted cone with the levels reflecting the degrees of transgressions. Those fomenting discord and division are at level nine near the bottom. This drawing has somewhat different levels however.

I’d like to finish with another mention of Dante Alligheri, the Italian poet of the 13th century. His consigning of Pope Boniface to a special place in hell begs comparison and we could only wonder what Dante would write today. In his conception of hell, an inverted chasm of stone, shaped like a cone with various levels called, malebolges (evil ditches) that are reserved for various degrees of sinners. One of the worst transgressions according to Dante was from those who foster discord, division or schism. They are all the way near the bottom of hell’s cone at level nine. The punishment assigned to those unfortunates is commensurate with their misdeeds. For example, there are several unforgettable images from the Inferno. In one of those, the transgressors are perpetually upside down, buried with their heads and bodies in the earth, with only their feet sticking out, to have the soles of their feet burned continually. An inversion indeed and in this case for eternity. We also recall another Italian, the Fascist dictator, Mussolini, who ended up executed as he was attempting escape to Switzerland and later hung by his feet with some of his mistress and cronies in a piazza in Milan. Another image from the inferno was of those whose heads were on backwards in hell, so that their tears would run down the crack in their buttocks. Bass ackwards into eternity, so to speak. Ok, Dante was not one to water down his fire and brimstone vision.

So this assault on our civilities at an unbelievable level, ranging from the fraudulent, to the crass or inhuman to the disrespectful- it is all there in one disgusting fellow and his cronies. It is unfathomable that there are still individuals out there promoting this twisted and inverted worldview on the nation.

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Martin Demarest
Martin Demarest

Wonderful article - The role of light in life and in art is so fundamental as to be overlooked.

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