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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


A long while ago, when I was languishing in the artistic wilderness, I listened to people who told me that maximum social media exposure is the key to 'getting your work out there'. In what form 'there' - that apparent artistic utopia – existed, I was never quite sure. I dutifully absorbed the doctrine that 'likes', 'followers' and (that, for me, horribly misemployed term) 'shares' all form the collective key to artistic success.

I am now convinced that social media is a useful and beneficial tool, and an adjunct to other proper, concrete means of promotion, but that it in no way represents the real world. Many were the times when, chiefly as a 'control', I would post an image on Twitter (I still can't bring myself to call it 'X') of a relatively poor painting, only to find it going like the clappers while other, beautiful and 'like-worthy' pieces were virtually ignored.

I would occasionally upload to abstract art forums on Reddit - still images, and the occasional progress-video. The comments that trickled in were usually weird, sometimes bitter and unhinged, showing a deep misunderstanding of what I was aiming to achieve. I won't say they were never of any value, for I believe that almost any perspective on one's work can be valuable, sometimes in ways that one does not expect.

Yesterday I revisited my old abstract art stamping-ground on Reddit and found an artist's post of a quite ethereal, almost Zen-like abstract meditation. It reminded me of some of what I used to produce fifteen years ago – uncertain, naïve, yet articulating an honest truth. It was soft, immediate, like a breath – a fleeting utterance caught on the wind of questioning. For sure, it was no grand gesture, no profound statement; but the first of many fairly disparaging comments below it opined, with crushing negativity, that the painting was poor because it displayed an absence of 'intent'.

MARIENBERG COMPOSITION 2 - Haydn Dickenson 2008

Today then, I will challenge the notion that Art without intent is not Art.

Reading that comment irked me. I detest narrow thinking. In my own response to experiences, statements, criticisms and the like, I always consider the bigger picture. I typically play devil's advocate for a while, analysing and dissecting the words or the act, in search of a germ of truth; there is often one to be found. The above statement about 'intent' is nothing groundbreaking. If one of the many utterances that Picasso is alleged to have made is authentic, even he believed that there is no true abstraction in art, because “you have to start with something”; but intent as a necessary condition for Art? - I don't think so.

The great Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho tells us that “There is always a gap between intention and action”.

I think that this is where the problem lies. In my world, artistic creation is at its most pure when it is spontaneous. I don't want there to be a gap.

I have written many times before in this column about the nature of the creative act as it takes hold of me. The first mark that I make on a canvas is the opening of a door, and its primary action is very different from that of a painter sketching, say, the outline of a horse. To begin rendering the sleek outlines of the horse requires premeditation, thought and planning; it needs to have a concentrated 'horsey intent'.

I intend no slur against figurative artists, but when I make my first mark, I want it to come from somewhere outside my immediate control. Neither approach diminishes the other – they merely emerge from different places. For me, the only intent is the one that commands me to make a mark at all.

THREE-FOUR - Haydn Dickenson 2023

It is lazy to suggest that art without intent is necessarily not art. Conversely, there is a great deal of 'art', brimming with intent, that could be argued not to be art at all.

The author and motivational speaker Steve Maraboli has said: “Interrupt your thoughts of 'I should' with your action of doing”; as in Life, so in Art. Some years ago, I worked with a therapist who taught me that “there is no 'should' ”. I think about this statement almost every day.

Even in my much younger years, I used to liken my best days to those of a cow grazing in the field, or a raptor soaring on the thermals. The cow plans nothing – it has no agenda. It contentedly munches the grass as and when it requires or wishes to. It walks, stands, or sleeps according to no laws but those of nature. It relieves itself where it stands, when it needs. The eagle catches the thermals, its majestic wings thrown open to the sun and the sky, diving to seize its prey in a single, devastating, inevitable act of unpremeditated magnificence. As a Tai Chi master once said, “You need to eat, sleep, shit and piss. The rest is none of your business”.

Yesterday afternoon I 'began' a new painting. I place inverted commas around 'began', for I do not believe I truly began it. The journey was offered to me and I chose to take it, hopping on the painterly train at precisely the moment that was meant to be. What I make of the journey will depend on my receptiveness to its gifts.

Eugen Herrigel, a German Professor of Philosophy, told in ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY (Penguin-Arkana, 1985) of his experience studying Archery with a Zen master. His extraordinary book is a regular source of inspiration to me. I will finish this page of thoughts about Intent, by quoting from it:

“And so we began again from the very beginning, as if everything I had learnt hitherto had become useless...One day I asked the Master: “How can the shot be loosed if 'I' do not do it? “ 'It' shoots,” he replied.”

“It” paints.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023

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