In the summer of 2017, a drama exploded onto the scene of the recently re-opened Whitney Museum of American Art on the occasion of the Whitney Biennial. The subject of protest? Dana Schutz’ abstract painting of a famous, disturbing image of a lynched Emmett Till, the young black boy violently mutilated by a group of white men after being falsely accused of approaching a white woman in a sexual manner.8 He was 14 years old when he was murdered in 1955 in Money, Minnesota.9

His killing rendered his body unrecognizable not only as himself but also within the bounds of the human form. Like Fanon, Till became a subject, or a victim, of a categorizing, violent gaze which identified him as both other and less than. And, just as Fanon describes “burst[ing] apart”10 under the weight of being gazed upon, the image of Till’s corpse displayed the ways in which he was quite literally “burst apart”11 as a consequence being gazed upon. His mother commissioned a portrait of Till in his casket, left open, to be published in newspapers as proof of the gratuitous, unimaginable truths of the violence perpetrated against him. 62 years later, when the Whitney opened their 2017 biennial, a new work by abstract painter Dana Schutz was the point of commotion: Schutz, a white woman, had re-represented the portrait of Till initially commissioned by his grieving mother in inches-thick globs of expensive oil paint. In response, protestors gathered in and around the museum. There, they labeled Schutz’s work a “black death spectacle.”

In my understanding, “black death spectacle” precisely identifies the power of the gaze, as well as gazes that conflict with one another. Till’s mother commissioned the famous portrait of her son to produce a particular, widespread gaze upon him; to propel the image of his body into particular modes of social meaning. By gazing upon his body through the photograph, propped in a casket and wearing a suit, a viewer might understand the immense love and care that his mother felt for her son; at the same time, they would understand the absolute gratuitousness and absurdity of the structures of social violence that act upon, target, and consume the lives of black folk. A viewer might begin to grasp, if not through their own experiences, the immense precarity often appendaged to the condition of black life.1213

An element of the original photograph that reinforces this dialectic is the precise focus: even though the camera was well-calibrated, Till still appears to obviously have been “burst apart,” and is difficult to identify despite the precision of the camera’s focus. (I am not including the original image in this paper, but you can find the image online with a quick Google search.) The intentions of Mamie Till’s gaze proved powerful: the image, in its shocking nature, went on to become a “powerful catalyst for the civil rights movement”14 as the dynamics of gaze produced by Till’s mother was taken on by many onlookers.

Schutz’s painting interrupts the intention and the gaze of Till’s mother. Instead of producing a gaze that might simultaneously measure the care and violence that Till encountered in his short life, Schutz’s abstraction produces a gaze that trivializes his death. In by abstracting the image of his death, she at once softens the (intended) blow of the image, and also magnifies it by declaring that his unimaginable killing is worth abstracting — worth becoming almost entirely unidentifiable. In an interview just after the protests against her work began, Schutz declared: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother.”15 To produce or allude to a kinship between her own experience and Till’s, or between her and Till’s mother, transfigures the specter of racial terror that contributed to Till’s death into the general material of motherhood, and also into a portal through which Schutz is allowed to play visually in the gratuitous experience of others. Her gaze, as a white abstract painter dealing with such violent, violated material that is not her own, becomes an act of violence itself.

af·fec·tive la·bor | aˈfektiv ˈlābər | noun

“Affective labor is theorized as an important subcategory of immaterial labor. It is the labor of human contact and interaction, which involves the production and manipulation of affects.”16

Schutz’s “Open Casket” and the debate around the “black death spectacle” it produced extend seamlessly into understanding the connections between the gaze and affective labor. Affective labor, rather than producing a tangible good or service, is the work of producing “relationships and emotional responses.” In the context of the growing market for affective laborers, the affect produced is often “'a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement or passion.’”17 Although it produces intangible, emotional products, affective labor is “usually corporeal and mixes with material forms of labor.”

This is to say that while its products are not tangible or visible, the work of affective labor occurs in (and is about) the body — either the body of the laborer or of the affected audience. In this sense, affective laborers may take on performances of emotion or affect as their labor. Even beyond the marketplace, where affective labor manifests as “breast feeding consultants and wedding planners,”19 performances towards productions of affect — especially unrecognized or uncompensated performances — take on the role of unmarketable affective labor. Of course, outside of the zone of compensation, bodily acts remain the site and subject of affective labor; a haunting reality in the wake of slavery. The body is also the point of connection between the gaze and affective labor: under the weight of the gaze and its simultaneous identification and production of social hierarchy / social order, the gazed- upon take on the burden of performances towards affective production.