Anger can fuel art. Goya’s series Disasters of War seem to cry out from their prints with the artist’s rage at what Napoleon’s armies have done to Spain. A Christmas Carol may warm our little hearts every Yuletide but somewhere near the core of the book burns Dickens’s hatred of Malthusian economics. And if Bob Dylan always sang “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with devastating composure, you better believe he wasn’t in a detached mood when he wrote it.
But anger can make art sputter, too. Pick up an anthology of anti-Vietnam War poems from the 1960s and you may encounter a fury that sentimentalizes real pain and falsifies the motives of admittedly wrong-headed politicians. Perhaps anger functions as an artistic force only when it leads the creator to stare with fascination into what he hates. The enemy must never be underestimated and the victim never portrayed with mere pity.
What is fascinating about The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan’s film about the church-sponsored laundries that, for nearly a century, virtually enslaved a large number of Irish girls (some of them unwed mothers, some only high-spirited enough to be curious about boys), is that it is plainly impelled by both compassion for the girls and anger at the Catholic Church (or at least its Irish branch). But it is only the compassion that appears truly deep-seated in Mullan and productive of compelling art.