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Art, imagination, and the live tradition 

“The greatest art offers us images by which to imagine our lives. And once the imagination has been awakened, it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we had to say… A work of art breeds in the ground of the imagination.” Lewis Hyde, The Gift (1983)

In The Gift, Lewis Hyde lucidly articulates how art transcends time by staying alive in a collective creative consciousness – a live artistic tradition – and how the gifts of art actually increase as they are received, experienced, and bestowed from one person to another.

When we appreciate a work of art, we receive its gifts, which stirs our imagination. This leads to further creativity and artistic output, which we share with others, adding to and enriching the live tradition, from which others draw further inspiration.

It is the cycle of receiving and giving that leads to the increase in what Walt Whitman calls, “the tasteless water of souls… the true sustenance…” (Leaves of Grass, 1855)

Hyde writes:

“In this way the imagination creates the future… Gifts – given or received – stand witness to meaning beyond the known, and gift exchange is therefore a transcendent commerce, the economy of recreation, conversion, or renaissance. It brings us worlds we have not seen before.” The Gift

Gift exchange is a cyclical act of receiving and giving artistic inspiration in which art is continuously being re-created, transformed, and reborn. The live tradition grows and bestows new experiences, creating new meaning.

It is very important that this cycle keeps moving: it needs to circulate for its fruits to grow. In this way past becomes present, which leads to future. They are interconnected by a timeless, transcendental spirit of creative consciousness, which is fluid (“tasteless water”) and nourishing (“true sustenance”).

When inspiration comes – and the imagination is stirred – the artist needs to realise its fruits by labouring to give it form and bestow it to others: “the imagination can create the future only if its products are brought over into the real,” Hyde reiterates. “The bestowal of the work completes the act of imagination… (when) the artist accept(s) the gift and labor(s) to give it to the real (at which point the distinction between ‘imaginary’ and ‘real’ dissolves).”


Reading The Gift is like participating in the cycle of creative gift exchange in itself; Hyde bestows the gift of his words to us, and in accepting it we partake in “the tasteless water of souls” as our creative lives are enriched by an understanding of the true nature of art, imagination, and the live tradition.


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