I’m sure many of you noticed the recent controversy over Google’s use of Spanish surrealist Joan Miro’s work in a logo commemorating the 113th anniversary of the artist’s birth. Intended by Google as a “tribute” to Miro’s “extraordinary contribution,” the artist’s family and their representatives at the The Artists Rights Society nevertheless cried foul and demanded Google remove the logo. Without admitting any copyright violation, Google complied with the family’s request.
A lot has been made of the implications of this brouhaha for artistic freedom. But I’m worried about the implications for popular history-making. Commemoration is one of the most common and important ways the non-professional public produces and understands history. This is especially true among the business community, which should not be undervalued as a producer and disseminator of historical information. The “anniversary edition” and the “birthday sale” are among the most widespread and most visible forms of historical expression in contemporary culture.
Miro was not the first person Google chose to commemorate with a special logo. These commemorative logos bring a little bit of history to literally millions and millions of people in a single day, many more than professional historians can ever hope to reach. Next time it wants to honor someone from the past, will Google remember the Miro incident and pass? That would be a grievous instance of found history lost.