First of all, to head off thoughts that I am arrogant or narcissistic, let me say that I am choosing to understand this remark as being not necessarily a comment on absolute aesthetic quality--after all, this gentleman had not heard any of my music--but rather a comment on category. "You are a person in the category of cultural treasure, irrespective of the precise quality of your work." That being understood, let me try and sort out the meaning of the phrase "cultural treasure".
I think that there are many things that we can easily see as belonging to the category: cultural treasure. A characteristic example would be the Elgin Marbles. The Elgin Marbles are an extensive group of marble carvings made by the great Greek master Phidias in the 5th century BC and originally part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens. They were rescued from possible destruction by Lord Elgin and currently reside in the British Museum. Greece wants them returned, of course and the debate continues. Here is a sample:
These marbles, which are striking examples of the brilliance of the culture of the ancient Greeks, are not only a cultural treasure of Greece, but of the whole civilization of the West, which has descended from the Greeks and Romans on the one hand, and the Judeo-Christians on the other.
Lots of things can be cultural treasures, not just objects of marble, but paintings, writings and musical manuscripts. The manuscript I put at the head of this blog, a 14th century love song in the shape of a heart, is a cultural treasure. But we can also extend the category to include those people who create these cultural treasures. Phidias the sculptor was a cultural treasure, as were Socrates and Plato. So were the anonymous creators of Gregorian chant. So were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
But there are cultural treasures on a more humble level as well. I think that if someone devotes significant parts of their time and energy to improving the culture, they are cultural treasures. I think there are a few key elements: one is that the work has to be cultural, i.e. someone who devotes their time to feeding the hungry or in other charitable work, they may be a moral treasure, but they are not a cultural treasure. Cultural work, at least as I see it, is aesthetic in some way. It enriches the culture aesthetically as did the sculptures of Phidias.
I know a couple of music teachers who are struggling, with inadequate funds, to start a conservatory here. A little while ago myself and a violinist played an educational concert for their students. I was having lunch the other day with these teachers and told them that they are cultural treasures. Yes, they are getting paid, though not well, but their work and more importantly, the motivation for their work, is really cultural enrichment, not their personal enrichment, which is not going to happen. I think that I can claim that a great deal of the time and energy in my life was spent in precisely the same way: in enriching the culture or trying to do so.
If you are pursuing a primarily aesthetic goal, then you are likely a cultural treasure. Of course the society would be well advised to support people like this and my music teacher friends are going to receive a bit more support I believe. But, and this is very important to understand, you cannot BUY a cultural treasure in the form of a person. All you can do is support one if you find one.
The problem with government arts programs, which always have good intentions, is that they tend to become captured by either political actors or by an "old boy" network. That is, either they become political footballs and the funds used to support the most politically correct projects, or the funds are primarily handed out to those people who become very skillful at cultivating the people in charge of the funds. In both cases the support goes to the wrong people. Real cultural treasures are often not good at applying for funding!
Another consequence of the "you can't buy a cultural treasure" principle is that you can't set up programs to create or educate them. Throwing money at an institution will support the goals of the institution, which are usually to enlarge the institution and make life better for those running it, but very little of that money will end up supporting actual cultural treasures. As I say, all you can really do is look around and see if you can find some--I guarantee they exist--and support what it is THEY think they should be doing.
Cultural treasures are sometimes recognized fairly early on, as Glenn Gould was, the minute he walked into a recording studio. This is his first recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations made when he was twenty-three years old:
Other times, they may not be recognized for many decades later as is the case of Charles Ives who, during his lifetime was unknown as a composer. His Central Park in the Dark was composed in 1906 and is sometimes called the first piece of radical 20th century music:
Sometimes cultural treasures are recognized in their lifetimes and sometimes not. And a lot of those recognized as cultural treasures may not be! Ask yourself, how many of the famous musicians of our time are actually cultural treasures and how many are mere poseurs?