Joan Miró, Google, Copyright Law, Flickr, and Me

Oh, this is good… yesterday I mentioned Google’s homepage logo homage to surrealist artist Joan Miró. Apparently The Artists Rights Society, a group that represents the Miro family, asked Google to remove the image today claiming copyright violation and “a distortion of the original works and… [a violation of] the moral rights of the artist.”

Tricky, tricky ground to tread on. 

Google makes occasional use of their frontpage logo to celebrate holidays, commemorate events, and pay tribute to great artists and thinkers on their respective birthdays. I would suspect that only a handful of the people who visited Google yesterday had ever heard of or seen the work of Joan Miró. Maybe they clicked on the logo and were taken to the Google search results for Joan Miró images and they liked his work and did more research. Google’s tribute/homage to Miró inevitably exposed A LOT of people to his work. And while the logo did incorporate images from Miró’s The Escape Ladder, Nocture, and The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers, thereby (probably) legally violating the copyrights on those works, I’m not sure I agree with the actions taken by The Artists Rights Society to put a stop to essentially introducing an entire generation to an artist’s FOR FREE. Getting on the Google homepage is a public relations sexual fantasy, and the ARS has basically said “no thank you, we’d like the artist we represent to toil away in obscurity from everyone outside the art world inner circle.”

Copyright law and supposed violations of it within the context of the art world fascinate me. And yes, of course, the artist (or, I suppose, the late artist’s family) has every legal right to vehemently defend and uphold the copyrights surrounding the work that was created. But there is a part of me that shudders everytime I see artists (or, hypothetically speaking, families of artists) SO SCARED that someone is going to “like… steal my stuff, ya know?” 

I recall going on a photo outing with a local photo club and trying to explain to them why Flickr was such a fantastic way to show people your work. It wasn’t just blank looks I received in return, it was SHEER WIDE-EYED PANIC that I would even think of putting my photos online where “anyone could just take them.” Now, ignoring the fact that you can disable the downloadability of images on Flickr, my response to that fear is “SO WHAT?” As an artist, don’t you want to share your work? Don’t you want people to see it? Of course I wouldn’t want to open a magazine to see an ad using one of my stolen photos, but at the same time, I should be so lucky that they think enough of my work to take it in the first place. Or that someone snags a photo or illustration for their desktop wallpaper. Heaven forbid I make work that people actually WANT to enjoy. Would I like to make a living solely making art? Dang skippy I would. Can those two seemingly opposing points of view (make a living making art, be ok with people taking art I make) co-exist? I think so.

Copyright law is important. I don’t understand all of the intricacies because I’m not a lawyer, and to be honest, because I don’t really care enough to learn them. But I know enough to know that it is good and right and important that the law protects the rights of people in regards to the works they create. But as artists, I also can’t help but think we get side-tracked with the scarcity mentality that holds on so tightly to the work we create. It’s a shame that we can’t know what Joan Miró’s reaction to yesterday’s events would be. As an artist, I’d love to know what he would think of one of the world’s most influential websites taking a day to pay tribute to his work simply because someone in the company appreciates it.

From my limited experience as an artist and designer, it seems like much of the art world is built on the common knowledge that we borrow from one another, that most styles are far from original, and that despite those things, we can still be engaged by art and the unique views of certain artists. 

Warhol paints Campbell’s soup cans, a movement like surrealism begins and hundreds of artists begin exploring in a certain stylistic framework, art students go to school and study the masters, imitating them until they begin to come into their own understanding of making art overtop of the basic framework of those that have created before them. And yet somehow commercialism, the desire to make money making art, the American “ideals” of always wanting the next new thing and rejecting what we feel we’ve seen before all begin to play into the art world and it muddies the pool. How do we walk the tension of these things as artists and as appreciators of art?