McCain, an invited speaker, had held forth for over an hour on the global economy, when the Institute's director and program moderator, Walter Isaacson, asked the senator a question that seemed a little silly.
The Republican presidential candidate had recently given an interview to Blender magazine in which he admitted to an affection for the Swedish pop-group ABBA. "What were you thinking? Isaacson asked. The audience roared.
McCain laughed, too, and acquitted himself affably by shrugging his shoulders and channeling his inner Tony Soprano. "Huh? I mean, really. Seriously. Huh?"
Reporters from CNN and The Denver Post treated McCain's ABBA moment as a humorous footnote to the day. Russia had just invaded the breakaway province of Georgia and most of the discussion had centered around that.
But McCain's comment about ABBA - and the confession that followed - were anything but trivial.
Someday, McCain said, he wanted to take a class in "other of the great things of life." He said he knew nothing about art. "I'm serious," he warned when the crowd laughed. His cultural education had basically come to an end the moment his plane had impacted a surface-to-air missile in Vietnam.
McCain's lighthearted talk about ABBA made the news but his admission that he knew little about art did not. Why? And why not look at it now?
The video clip reveals a moment worth attending to. It's significant, first, because it reveals a humble McCain, a noble Everyman, suddenly stripped of campaign veneer and admitting to a personal shortcoming.
Secondly, the clip offers us an opportunity to discuss the significance - or irrelevance - of arts and culture in our time.
It's noisy right now. You can hear the markets crashing even with your windows closed.
But there are at least two good reasons to look more closely, and with due haste, at the arts.
The first is sheer numbers. According to Americans for the Arts, the nation's cultural economy generates $166 billion in revenue annually. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the cultural labor force in this country is nearly as big as the American military.
But perhaps a more compelling reason is that, in difficult times, art - in all its forms - can serve to guide us.
Art offers a history and chronicle of the human condition, and in it, wisdom, depth, and a complex worldview that we, in our compass-less-ness, could sorely use.
Why have we, like John McCain, let this better angel of our nature go this election season? Why have we not talked about art at all?
Take a good look at the clip of McCain, and not with the intention of damning him.
Look at the clip and ask what it means for us to have abandoned art in our lives, in the center of our discussions, as he did.
Look at the clip and ask ourselves what the clip says about us.
It's time to ask ourselves what it means for all of us, not just Sen. McCain, when we forget to talk about forgetting to talk about art.
Straight talk on the arts
Aspen Institute, August 14, 2008 Moderator Walter Isaacson with Sen. John McCain.
Q: You were asked by Blender magazine, I think it was, to name your Top 10 songs, I don't know if you know, yeah you remember, and No. 1 was ABBA's "Dancing Queen." . . . What were you thinking?
A: I think No. 1 was uh, Frank Sinatra, "I've Got You Under My Skin."
Q: Well, then they did something to you.
A: Did they?
Q: They listed as No. 1 "Dancing Queen" by ABBA.
A: If there's anything I'm lacking in, I've got to tell you, it's taste in music and art and other of the great things in life. . . . I've got to say that uh, a lot of my taste in music stopped about the time I impacted a surface-to-air missle with my own airplane and never caught up again. . . . Now look, everybody says, 'I hate ABBA. Oh, ABBA. How terrible.' Blah, blah, blah. How come everybody goes to 'Mamma Mia!'? Huh? I mean really, seriously. Huh? "Oh, I hate ABBA. They're no good.' You know? Well, everybody goes. They've been, they've been selling out for years, so . . .
Q: Your press people are now talking about what he really meant to say, was . . .
A: Can I go back to music and art a second . . . (Audience laughter)
Q: That's fine.
A: I appreciate art, and if there's one thing I seriously, if there's one thing I'm going to do when I have the opportunity, it's to take a class in art. Because I, I'm serious. I have been in some wonderful people's homes and seen and admired art collections. And I have a daughter that graduated from Columbia in Art History, and I'm going to take her with me and have her teach me, because I think there's, there's something, I love my Naval Academy education and my time at the National War College, but some of the things weren't there that I would like to see, to fill out my education. . . . But I make no excuses for my taste in music.