A New Shade of Performance Art: YouTube Makeup Tutorials

Makeup has long been an important aspect of performance art, but it’s recently taken on a new dimension, infiltrating the world of YouTube beauty tutorials to hilarious and disarming effect.

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Oct 21 2015, 6:25pm

Screencap of Jordan Hanz's Unattainable Woman, via

The use of makeup in performance art is by no means a novel concept. Makeup has long been used as the ultimate transformer, from the time of Greek choruses who used it to exaggerate their features all the way to the present-day woman of a million faces (not all of them popular), artist Cindy Sherman. But makeup’s use in video art is a much more recent affair. Cosmetics first got their starring role in art films back in the sixties when Bruce Nauman put the spotlight on face painting in his 1967 four-part series, Art Make-Up.

Throughout the series, Nauman slowly applies a successive layer of paint (first white, then pink, green, and black) covering his face and torso as a means of symbolically implying his own capacity to literally make up his identity. A similar theme was explored in Marina Abramovic’s later work, the 1975 film Art must be Beautiful; Artist must be Beautiful, where the mundane act of hairbrushing is turned into a tortuous act bordering on self-flagellation. Andy Warhol also later delved into the world of makeup in a bizarre 1981 clip from Andy Warhol TV entitled Makeup and Death.

With the rise of YouTube and digital cameras, videos have ceased to be the exclusive domain of artists and are now de rigeur as the easiest means to produce and proliferate viral content. Alongside clips of cute dogs and people falling down, direct-camera address beauty videos have become insanely popular, allowing for the transformation of people who were once just on a first-name basis with their Sephora salespeople into full-on digital makeup gurus. At this point, however, these short how-to films have shifted from genuinely educational instructions on contouring into another deluged medium for people looking to score their five seconds of Internet fame. Out of this overabundance of videos a new, far more interesting iteration of cosmetic-centric films has risen to the forefront: makeup tutorials as performance art.

This intriguing subgenre takes on a meta-dimension, examining the very nature of makeup videos and then deconstructing them. These films appear to be a direct response to the chaotic mashup of contradictory information that beauty videos have become, often leaving you knowing less than when you started watching. The hyperbolic, performative aspects of these clips are a pretty clear backlash against the fever pitch of absurdity that makeup tutorial videos have reached, where literally anyone can give their advice, accurate, ill-informed, or otherwise.

Videos are also taking on a decidedly more political bent, with makeup artists using their YouTube platform with millions of subscribers to move beyond just external beauty and address issues that affect them personally. A perfect example of this would be Jordan Hanz’s much-discussed Unattainable Woman video, where she dissects the judgmental labels and impossible standards society sets for women.

However, the height of this performance art trend is surely epitomized in the Arch of Destiny short created by makeup artist Sammy B. This video has quickly achieved a kind of cult status, becoming a comedic touchstone that the majority of the Internet still seems to believe is completely authentic. However, a quick browse through Sammy B.’s YouTube channel will readily prove the clip’s farcical nature.

The dichotomy encapsulated in this eyebrow tutorial video, though most likely unintentional, perfectly epitomizes the nature of these performance art makeup videos. Most of the creators of these films are likely unwitting participants in a larger artistic dialectic, but that’s precisely what makes the work so compelling: the unintentionally transgressive nature of these videos makes room for academic and artistic viewpoints to enter into the conversation surrounding beauty, creating something that effectively mirrors the very patchwork high-meets-lowbrow nature of the Internet itself.

Follow Emily Kirkpatrick on Twitter: @kirkpate

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