06/15/2012 03:13 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

The Hard Stretching of Oneself

"Prizes are for boys, and I'm all grown up." -- Charles Ives, after being awarded a Pulitzer and giving away half the award money

"To work not for marks, badges, honors, but to discover truth and to grow in knowledge of the universe and in the understanding of men, to treasure the hard stretching of oneself, to render service." -- Carmelita Hinton, founder of The Putney School, from a letter on her fundamental educational beliefs, May, 1954

"All great art is a visual form of prayer." Sister Wendy Beckett

This is the time of year when schools everywhere are awarding prizes, awards, honors, badges to students whom they've recognized as most deserving. I must confess to some ambivalence about all this. When I was a student, I won every prize in sight, and then as a young artist for a very long time I didn't win anything. When I was winning I shouldn't have paid as much heed to what others thought, and same when I wasn't winning.

In his poem "In My Craft or Sullen Art" Dylan Thomas spoke in a poem about why he wrote poetry:

In my craft or sullen art / Exercised in the still night / I labour by singing light / Not for ambition or bread / Or the strut and trade of charms / On the ivory stages / But for the common wages / Of (the) most secret heart.

In recognizing the achievements of individual students by awarding prizes and honors, do we encourage our students to seek our recognition as an end in itself? Do we risk fixing them as winners and losers, talented or not, with our labels? Do we teach them to believe that our judgments of their art are correct, all-important, decisive, and final? Should we watch for the measure of self-congratulation implicit in so many prizes, as if student achievements were our own?

Most artists "labor... for the common wages... of (the) most secret heart." It's usually why they make art in the first place. Granted, it is difficult to recognize excellence in the most secret heart, but would we award prizes to a "visual prayer?" We should celebrate and admire not just talent, but will and persistence, the hard stretching of oneself, inwardly as well as outwardly. And we should remind our students that truest reward of making art is to continue to make it, and through making it "to discover truth and to grow in knowledge," without expectation of reward.