Not Your Grandparent’s Clenched Fist

Let freedom ring—and let it be rung by a stripper,” bellows a billboard advertising Howard Stern’s new radio show on SIRIUS satellite radio, which started Monday, beneath the silhouetted stencil-like fist that is Howard’s new logo. The fist is familiar: it recalls the ones on T-shirts and building walls from the 1960’s protest days. But the fist of popular protest, the imagery of the Atelier Populaire in Paris and the grad students at Harvard in 1969, now serves the cause of making the airwaves safe for adolescent jokes about female breasts and human flatulence. It is a long fall from the ideals and ideology of which the fist was earlier made the symbol.

As so often, graphic symbols mark a wider change. Yes, we see the little “H” made of the two fingers in the fist, as glib a graphic as the assertion that what Stern is about is powerful political expression. Freedom of speech is Howard Stern’s cry. He argues that the new satellite radio offers him freedom from the restrictions of the Federal Communications Commission. That, and some, well, serious cash.

The first time as tragedy, the second as farce—Karl Marx long since gave way to Groucho in our expectations of the fate of revolutionary images and routines. But along with every other bit of ‘60s imagery, the graphics of protest seem to be recast with special silliness these days.

The fist of protest has its roots in the deep traditions of revolutionary imagery of 1848 and French Romantic painting. It became a staple of banners and logos of unions and political parties. Raised out of the crowd, the fist clenched in strength, anger and determination could serve groups of almost any ideological stripe.

A fist drawn by volunteer Frank Cieciorka for SNCC was widely used in the South. The fist symbol of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Power movement was a simplified and flattened version of the heroic fists of poster art of earlier decades.

The wishful conflation of the student protest with worker protests from Paris in 1958 merging fist and smokestack.

The fist of the Harvard Strike of 1969 was stenciled on walls and T-shirts. Harvard Magazine tracked down the creator of the protest fist image from 1969. He was Harvey Hacker, today an architect and designer.

Today the Socialist Worker’s Party still uses a fist, although the Mitterand Socialists in France, which like most western socialist parties renounced nationalization of industry, turned the fist into a graphic holding a rose. But Slobodan Milosvic liked a red fist of socialist power, which was parodied and challenged by Otpor, a student resistance group, in the 1990s. The Otpor group (“Resistance”) used a black fist as their symbol.

In Detroit, the downtown fist sculpture was defaced with spray paint a few months ago, reminding the citizenry of its continuing ambiguities. Robert Graham’s sculpture was inspired by the fist of hometown champion boxer Joe Louis. It was paid for by Sports Illustrated Magazine and unveiled in 1987. The fist and arm suspended from a frame was criticized for not referring explicitly enough to Louis and at the same time for evoking the imagery of black power. It was unveiled at a time in the mayoralty of Coleman Young, the city’s first African American mayor when antipathy between city and suburbs and black and white was especially sharp.

The Graham fist is ambiguously horizontal, not vertical. Now the protesters raise fists but a potential battering ram. It evokes the whole history of boxers as symbols of black empowerment and expression. Not as outspoken as either, Louis nonetheless ranks high as a symbol and stands between Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. In this regard, he reminds us of the raised fist of the black power movement, and specifically the iconic images of John Carlos and Tommy Smith fists raised in protest on medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

The 24-foot bronze arm was not universally loved. Some citizens wanted a glove on the fist. Some objected to it as a symbol of black power. “Making a statue of a fighter would have been a limited image of Joe Louis,” Graham said at the time. “People bring their own experiences to the sculpture. I wanted to leave the image open, allowing it to become a symbol rather than make it specific.”

That pose is evoked too in the biggest new fist around, and one that has received surprisingly little notice. Looming above crowds and traffic in Times Square, the huge billboard of Sean Jean in Times Square with raised fist and inclined head explicitly evokes Carlos and Smith in 1968.

The pair wore black gloves as well as black socks and no shoes. Since the gloves they wore were a pair, each had to wear one on the opposite hand. Smith said he had raised his right fist to represent black power in America, while Carlos raised his left fist to represent black unity. But what is the message of the Sean Jean rendition? Is it—a generous interpretation—an acknowledgment from Puffy that he would not be where he is without Carlos and Smith and their movement? Or is it an assertion that he is continuing their efforts by different means? And how many customers will catch the reference? But let’s not romanticize the near past: Tony Judt whose wonderful new book Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, offers many refreshing new perspectives, points out how stylized were the protests of the ‘60s, and how far from the blood and guts demonstrations and revolutions on which they consciously modeled their imagery.

“For all the clenched fists and revolutionary rhetoric,” Judt writes, “the student movement of the sixties was mostly about style.” He also observes that today the best-selling books about the era are not memoirs or ideological analyses but collections of graffiti and slogans.

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”