Living Life as an Artist: A Note About “The Bad Art Friend”

Introduction

If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last week, especially in the creative circles, then you’ve most likely heard mention of the article “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” If not, then it may be something to look into. The article, which I will get into in a moment, brings to light a lot of the “behind the scenes” things in the art world that everyday people may not consider. After all, many people know what a “bad friend” is, but what about a “bad art friend”?

Who Is the Bad Art Friend?

The article “Who Is the Bad Art Friend” was written by Robert Kolker published by The New York Times on October 5, 2021. On the surface, the article is an account of the events that led to Sonya Larson suing Dawn Dorland for defamation, Dorland counter-suing for copyright infringement, and the current court case that followed. However, as the title suggests, it delves more into a “who is in the wrong” case between the two women and the fine line artists walk between reality and fiction. I will summarize the article as best I can for those of you who haven’t read it yet—though you really should, it’s right here. If you have read it, feel free to skip ahead.

Here are the basics of what you need to know about the article.

The article starts from Dorland’s point of view in 2015 when she donated a kidney to a stranger. She didn’t do so for any reason other than to help someone in need. She started a private Facebook group of a lot of friends and family to document her journey. One of the people she invited was Larson. When Dorland realized Larson wasn’t reacting to any of the posts in the Facebook group, Dorland sent Larson a friendly email after her surgery.

About a year later, in 2016, a mutual friend informed Dorland of a short story titled “The Kindest” that Larson wrote—you can purchase the anthology to read it if you want, it’s in here—about a woman who received a kidney from a living donor. Dorland, naturally, wondered if her selfless gift inspired the story and once again reached out to Larson. Larson said she was “partially inspired” after hearing about Dorland’s “tremendous donation” and hoped that having her life inspire art didn’t make Dorland “feel too weird.” Dorland admitted she was “a little surprised” by the whole thing since Larson never really brought up Dorland’s surgery.

Dorland let it go for a while after the two “forged a fragile truce.” That is until “The Kindest” started showing up in places like Audible and the magazine American Short Fiction in 2017. It wasn’t until the latter dropped the paywall on the short story that Dorland read the story and happened upon the letter the fictional kidney donor writes to the recipient. Dorland confronts Larson about it and, when Larson denies it was Dorland’s same letter, Dorland writes many places to get the story unpublished. One of those places included the Boston Book Festival, where “The Kindest” was a part of One City One Story 2018. Ultimately, they canceled the event and the Boston Book Festival threatened to sue Larson for trying to pass off plagiarism as her work.

At the beginning of 2019, Larson sued Dorland for defamation. Dorland, not wanting to stand down and having been in contact with a lawyer for some time, counterclaimed copyright infringement and emotional distress—the judge throwing out the latter claim in 2021. As part of the court case—those faint of heart or wanting to read the article first should look away— the group chat and texts of Larson’s writing group were subpoenaed…

Lots of dirt and skeletons were discovered in those messages. However, the big question remains. Who is the bad art friend?

Who do I think the bad art friend is?

Honestly, it took me a while to come up with a conclusion myself, and even still I’m not a hundred percent sure on where I stand. One of the big things about the article is that Dorland is the one who approached The New York Times about writing it in the first place, with many saying Dorland foresaw the article going in a completely different direction. That, coupled with the many other quotes sprinkled within the article, definitely paints Dorland in a negative light. On the other hand, once I read the group chat messages—which, in my opinion, should be sacred—Larson was no longer the innocent victim either. So who do I pin as the bad art friend? Unfortunately, that’s not something I feel comfortable publicly taking a side on. I will say this, however. Being willing to right your wrongs goes a long way in my book.

How the bad art friend could’ve been avoided

Now, this next section is coming from a position of hindsight, but I do feel it’s important that we look at the actions that led up to this lawsuit. After all, while I doubt any of us will find ourselves in a position such as the Larson vs. Dorland case, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Here are the four things that I feel impacted the case the most and all artists should keep in mind in their daily lives.

Here are the four things that I feel impacted the case the most and all artists should keep in mind in their daily lives. Click To Tweet

Plagiarism

The most obvious thing in the bad art friend article is the flagrant plagiarism on Larson’s side. In the group messages—which I will get to in a bit—she even says “that [Dorland’s] letter was too damn good” to not use verbatim. Writing 101 drills the importance of not plagiarizing work into any writer’s head. If plagiarism is grounds for dismissal from a university, then why would it be perceived to be okay in a professional setting? In my opinion, any writer who knowingly plagiarizes another writer’s work forgoes the right to fight a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against them. However, if the writer changes the plagiarized part of their piece—or unpublishes the entire thing—when asked, the writer can then sue for harassment or defamation if the original author doesn’t drop the case. That’s what Larson did in this instance when Dorland continued to message people Larson worked with. If the writer can prove they unknowingly plagiarized a piece, then that’s a whole different debacle. Once again, I want to remind you that this is all my opinion. I am not a lawyer or providing any sort of legal advice.

Blind Privilege

The second thing that struck me about the bad art friend article, was the privilege held by Dorland and the lack of acknowledging it. I am a white female and I am aware of the privilege I have. While I understand Dorland’s excitement around the gift of donating her kidney to a stranger, who wouldn’t feel empowered by such a selfless act, the way she approached sharing her journey and eagerness to encourage others came across as conceited. For one, who keeps track of who interacts with your posts? Why is it so important that you feel the need to email someone asking why they haven’t been reacting to your posts after your surgery? Also, while I understand wanting to invite close friends and colleagues to a group documenting a journey such as this, why would Dorland think that writers would care about her donating a kidney? Especially at a conference that happened almost a year later? None of that makes sense to me. And, the biggest thing I believe Dorland forgets about her donation is that the average person couldn’t financially do such a generous thing. While, yes, the recipient’s insurance pays for all medical services related to the organ donation, that’s only the medical costs. That doesn’t include the time one would need to take off work, further tests, any aftercare not covered by the recipient’s insurance, any mental health treatment, or the rare case of negative side effects down the road. There’s a lot of privilege there for someone to be able to donate a kidney to a stranger. Yes, there are charities out there to help cover the extra costs, but they can only help so many. From the article, it doesn’t sound like Dorland understood those privileges and would get upset when no one acknowledged her “selfless” act.

Transformism

As artists, we “steal” from everyday life all the time, which was made clear in the bad art friend article. There are so many things we borrow from the world around us, the world we live in, the interactions with the people we meet, and even events we draw from. Larson drew inspiration from Dorland’s gift for her story and, aside from the letter, she transformed the story as much as the Campbell’s soup cans Andy Warhol painted. While anyone familiar with Dorland’s gift could contrive some similarities between the two, they were both completely different in their own right. That’s what transformism is. It’s taking a story or a picture and, instead of copying it as much as you can, you make it into something solely your own. While the plagiarism of Dorland’s letter was inexcusable and should never have happened, Larson had every right to write the story. Also, since Dorland shared her story semi-publicly, there was no real confidentiality to her story. If you don’t want your life to inspire the life and creativity of others, then you may want to build yourself a cabin in the woods and go off-grid. We all have a life to live. We connect with those around us. It’s selfish to keep a story to yourself that could truly touch the life of another.

Things said in private

One piece of advice I was given while growing up, that would’ve prevented some backlash in the bad art friend article, is to only write down things you’re okay with others knowing. There’s always a worry as kids that someone will read our diaries and discover our secrets. That worry lessens as our fears become unfounded. However, if there’s ever a reason that your texts, emails, and the like need to be pulled, then all those secrets will be discovered. That usually isn’t a worry for normal citizens, but in Larson’s case, it was. There were many things she said to those in her writing group that didn’t help her case once they were in the open. Larson blatantly admitted that she copied Dorland’s letter nearly verbatim. It also became apparent through the messages that no one in the group liked Dorland and believed she’d done the whole thing for likes. While I can’t speak for Dorland’s true reason behind her gift, I can remind you to take a moment to think before writing something in a private text or group chat. Perhaps meet in person or have video calls instead?

There’s always a worry as kids that someone will read our diaries and discover our secrets… Click To Tweet

So, who is the bad art friend?

I believe that isn’t a question any of us can answer. We can have our opinions on it, but none of us can ever really judge who was “right” and “wrong” in this case. Maybe you believe that Dorland’s story was sacred and should never have been shared? Perhaps you think there’s nothing wrong about the whole thing and you’re wondering why everyone is up in arms about it. Or, perhaps, you’re wondering why Dorland hasn’t written about it herself. I think Larson put it most aptly: “I feel instead of running the race herself, she’s standing on the sidelines and trying to disqualify everybody else based on minor technicalities.”

I think Larson put it most aptly: “I feel instead of running the race herself, she’s standing on the sidelines and trying to disqualify everybody else based on minor technicalities.” Click To Tweet

Now, I want to hear from you. I want to know what side of the argument you stand on. Feel free to leave me a comment below, reach out to me on Instagram or Twitter, or send me a message here. Share this with your friends and get them in on the conversation too!