Is the Harvey Nichols campaign Modern Art?

Apparently there’s a sale on at Harvey Nichols and some people are excited about it. So excited, they can’t contain themselves.

Chances are, you’ve already seen the new ads for Harvey Nicks and have probably heard about the outrage they’ve caused in some quarters. I imagine you also have a view as to whether the ads are a witty play on words for the Hipster generation, or a crass joke that was designed to offend.

I’ll admit that when I first saw the ads, I was less than impressed. In fact, I experienced a feeling I now recognise as slight disgust. Behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that we automatically recoil from images that disturb us. This reflex is triggered by what he refers to as ‘System 1′, the mode of thinking that is fast, instinctive and emotional.

I clearly wasn’t the only person to react this way. The Daily Mail duly reported the outrage caused by the ‘disgusting advertising campaign showing women wetting themselves’.

But this visceral reaction got me thinking: Is there more to these images than a cheap gag? Are they art?

A Short History of Piss In Art

Whilst the question may seem strange, it turns out there is a long history of modern artists quite literally taking the piss.

According to an essay by Australian artist and curator Christopher Chapman, images of urination in art are ‘a sign of abjection, liberation, political resistance, eroticism, fraternity, metaphor and gender difference.’

Arguably the most important artwork of the 20th century is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), an upturned porcelain urinal that he purchased at a plumbing supply store, signed, and exhibited.

Chapman catalogues the work of numerous other artists that have used piss to make a point. These include Andy Warhol’s ‘Oxidation’ paintings, Gilbert & George ‘IN THE PISS’, and Andres Serrano’s infamous ‘Piss Christ’ – an image of Christ on the cross, submerged in urine.

According to Chapman: ‘Serrano closes the space between a symbol of divinity and a substance that is entirely corporeal. This proximity is alarming. It has the effect of emphasising our own sense of physical existence in the world.’

Ads Imitating Art

The most striking parallel I could find in the art world to the Harvey Nichols images is the 1994 work by Tony Tasset: ‘I Peed My Pants’. This is a life-size portrait of the artist with a large stain in the crotch.

According to ‘A Short History of Piss In Art’ by Dave Dyment: ‘The expression on his face is one of both defiance and shame, inverting the common pissing-as-machismo theme.’

It is possible to do a similar job of deconstructing the imagery in the Harvey Nichols ads. The defiant pose of the models could be viewed as a feminist challenge to oppressive stereotypes that associate fashion with perfection.

It would be overstating the point to claim that the Harvey Nichols images are works of art, but if they were being exhibited in a gallery instead of a billboard, I suspect the reaction to them would be different (although perhaps not from the reassuringly consistent Daily Mail).

What’s undeniable is that the DDB UK campaign has achieved cut through. The extensive commentary on-and-offline (including this piece) is proof enough of that.

While it remains to be seen what impact the controversy will have on the Harvey Nichols sale itself, there is no doubt that the images are memorable, and perhaps not more crass than other forgettable ads promoting discount sales.

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