VIOLENTLY battered bodies everywhere this week in my cultural diet. Lucky me.

On fatherly duties (my daughter’s in the cast), I saw Zinnie Harris’s #MeToo era version of the bloody Jacobean tragedy The Duchess Of Malfi at Glasgow’s Tramway.

Before that, I’d just come from an exhibition of war photography by The National’s David Pratt: enough charred corpses there for any evening’s entertainment.

And on Thursday I’d sat in the dark with Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, getting ready to throw my hands over my eyes whenever his habitual gore-fests came on screen.

No, I’m not a glutton for punishment. But seeing all of this in two days has really struck me; specifically, how easily explicit representations of violence can make their way on to our everyday cultural menus – and across the centuries too.

The continuities between a 17th-century revenger tragedy and a 21st-century Californian film geek – or for that matter, between these and the beginnings of drama and art – probably require a turn to both history and biology for an explanation.

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I used to love studying Jacobean drama because so many of the plays were so obviously expressing the tensions of the era. Many of them stage that great psychological shift of the times – from dutifully playing your traditional role in the feudal order, to becoming a self-determining individual, with all manner of personal interests and desires now coming first.

Zinnie Harris’s Duchess Of Malfi is entirely an example of that. In the play’s first half, she acts on her whims and lusts, recently widowed and now considerably wealthy. Yet immediately, the men appear – in the form of her brothers – to find ways to suppress and control her will and intention.

Ultimately, in the play, this involves extreme violence, both physical and mental. You easily reach for biology at this point. Look at the list of evolutionary “problems” that academics think human violence and aggression might “solve”:

“Co-opting the resources of others; defending against attack; inflicting costs on same-sex rivals; negotiating status and hierarchies; deterring rivals from future aggression; deterring your mate from infidelity; and reducing resources expended on genetically unrelated children”.

Almost all of these “reasons” for violence pulse through The Duchess Of Malfi. And all of them are deployed, and perpetrated, by men.

A time-machine ticket back to the everyday streets of the 17th century, sir? No thanks.

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Yet if these evolutionary elementals of violence can come to the surface, in the chaos of the shift from the feudal self to the individualist self, then we learn so much from the artistic brilliance of a Webster or a Shakespeare, capturing the transformation as it rises.

In The Better Angels Of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker tried to make a counter-intuitive case about violence. He wanted to show that the overall, per-capita experience of violence has actually massively reduced over the last few centuries.

The knife-holding revengers and rope-wielding justice-seekers of Malfi are one thing. But Pinker notes that we have moved towards societies where we grant our governments a monopoly on violence – specifically so that it can improve, and pacify, our everyday relations.

(You think this is an anachronistic point? Look at Friday’s pictures of Boris Johnson, propagandising

away about “law and order” in front of a wall of serving police officers. Hardly so).

There’s been much pushback on Pinker’s thesis. For example, his point about violence being on a downward trend is based on its proportion to overall population numbers. This can seem tricksy. Because of our recent population explosion, does the massive bodycount and carnage of war in the 20th century really diminish that much?

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However, Pinker’s point came inescapably to my mind, as I absorbed the terrible beauty of David Pratt’s documentations of war at the Saltmarket’s Sogo Gallery in Glasgow. Of course, there is a thick weave of geopolitics behind each and every one of these pictures. Their countries and zones – Iraq, Syria, El Salvador, Croatia – have been playthings in the regional games of superpowers for centuries.

Yet Pratt’s camera eye focuses on what happens to human relations when those pacifying institutions (whether indigenous to the country, or imperially imposed) fall apart. When violence stops being monopolised, and becomes a resource for everyone – or at least, men with guns.

Indeed, so many of Pratt’s pictures are of men presiding over ruins and wastelands, their weaponry brandished as relaxedly and naturally as it ever has been in the human record. So much of the rest of Pratt’s archive are women and children – the damaged and scattered victims of such ambient violence.

Most pictures are also set in the literal ruins of modernity – hospitals, shops, suburbs, schools. By the time David got to it in 1995, a Kabul building called the “Russian Science and Cultural Centre” had become a sordid and bomb-blasted shooting gallery (for both guns and drugs).

That our own Western modernity depends on much of the rest of the world being at the sharp end of our exploitations, business models and power games, is the obvious huge message sitting beneath Pratt’s work. We monopolise violence at home, but we have funded it by exporting, enabling and fomenting violence abroad. (Whether we get a chance to build and argue for a better “second” modernity, starting with Scotland at least, is still my own idealism for indy. I know Pratt has the same geopolitical ambition for this country).

And so, where does a scarlet-spattered confection like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood come into these sombre mediations on violence? Surprisingly, with some weight and moral power. Tarantino would seem to be a filmmaker entirely driven, at least emotionally, by the full suite of those evolutionary “problems” mentioned earlier.

The psychologists note that 90% of violence between people of the same sex happens between men-and-men. Tarantino’s movies are mostly carnivals of male retribution; a massively elaborate evening up of scores.

Sometimes, he tries to tip the scales of historical injustice. Slaves torture their masters in Django Unchained. Allied soldiers assassinate Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. Sometimes, as in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, the extremes are just to generate

shocked laughter.

The current “Hollywood” movie has characters who are explicitly thoughtful about the social conditions for violence. They note the impact of a gun-toting popular culture. And they are fully alive to the dangerous narcissism of the hippie revolution that led to the Charles Manson murders of Sharon Tate and others.

Yet when the violence comes, it’s more sickening and gratuitous than in any of Tarantino’s movies that I’ve seen. In a way, it’s as avant-garde as Harris’s second act of The Duchess of Malfi, which turns an edgy comedy into a neon-lit, electrified torture chamber.

I’m grateful that both directors sought to apply a small amount of balm to their audiences’ wounds. For Tarantino, let’s just say that he rewrites history in an appropriately geeky fashion. For Harris, she lets the murdered duchess and her fellow victims linger to the end, well beyond their appearance in the original text.

They become ghosts that bind and clean bodies, whispering accusations into microphones, sending harmonies into the Tramway’s rafters.

Meanwhile the men, like dogs in a reservoir, mostly shoot and rip themselves to pieces.

Whether it’s choosing a particular photo from the contact sheet, or filming a historical fantasy, or transcending a regime of male power by the sheer force of beauty – that’s the power of art. Having waded into the worst, artists can give themselves the chance to at least hint at the better angels of our nature.

The last utterance (and giant flashed image) in Harris’s Malfi are these words: “Change it!”

A good way to end an evening, and a retort to our all-too-human history of violence.