‘Objects Are Metaphors for People’: Watch Jeff Koons Defend Banality and Resist High-Low Dichotomies

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Jeff Koons poses during the press preview of his exhibition “Lost in America” on November 20, 2021, at Qatar Museums. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Qatar Museums.

Jeff Koons, the world’s most expensive living artist, has always had lofty goals for his art. Though he often uses everyday objects and pop-culture references as his inspiration—say, posing vacuum cleaners on pedestals and presenting them as sculpture, or rendering balloon animals in mirror-polished stainless steel—his genius is to elevate these humble referents icons. As Koons insists, “Art should be something really powerful.”

Earlier this week, the artist announced his entry into the world of NFTs on a scale that is quite literally out of this world. “Jeff Koons: Moon Phases” consists of a series of NFTs that correspond to physical sculptures, a selection of which will be launched to the surface of the moon, where they’ll stay forever. Koons described the project as a “celebration of humanity’s aspirational accomplishments,” and proceeds from some of the first sales will be donated to Doctors Without Borders.

Koons says his work has long been rooted in humanism. In an interview with Art21 filmed back in 2009 as part of its Art in the Twenty-First Century series, he laid out his idealized vision for art. “Objects are metaphors for people,” he said, noting that during his career he has returned to similar themes, like flowers. “It always turns out to be about others. It’s not about accepting that object, high-low culture. It’s about the acceptance of others.”

In the video, the artist explains his interest in banality, which is the title of one of his early series, encompassing sculptures like Michael Jackson and Bubbles and Bear and Policeman. The artist also touches on his exhibition at the Château de Versailles, where his large inflatable crustacean sculpture, Lobster, was hung from the ceiling of the gilded Salon de MarsThough it may have struck many viewers as a surreal, light-hearted image, to Koons, it is much deeper. “If you look closely, the graphics on the lobster are like somebody being burned at the stake,” the artist says, referring to the creature’s expression. “So you also have this sense that if you’re in the public eye long enough, that’s an inevitable fate.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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