In November 2007, Jeff Koons's shiny, red "Hanging Heart" sold at auction for almost $27 million, making it, at the time, the most expensive work of art ever sold by a living artist. The sculpture is a nine-foot-tall, four-foot-thick Valentine's Day bauble suspended by a steel facsimile of a gold gift ribbon—which, along with the price tag, makes it the perfect art-world icon for the Bush era: a cloying cliché presented as profundity.
Much as the Bush administration has waved off an intimacy with Big Oil and professed down-home empathy for regular "folks," Koons likes to pretend that he's not an avatar of irony for billionaire collectors. No, he's a simple, straightforward guy who wants to make ordinary people happy. "I believe that my art gets across the point that I'm in this morality theater trying to help the underdog," he says. Right now, Koons is doing that with his big, vacuous "Easy Fun" paintings. They're neo-pop image mashes of ice cream, candy, pretty girls, flowers and blue sky—all executed in a Bushonomical outsourced way, with more than 6,000 hours of labor provided by his 80 assistants, and then sold for millions by megadealer Larry Gagosian. We're talking about an esthetic hedge-fund tycoon here.
Koons's art has been putting a smiley face on the high-end art market since all the way back in the administration of President Bush 41, with such works as a huge, tacky ceramic figurine of "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" (1988). He continued the practice with a stainless-steel blowup of a "Balloon Dog" during the Clinton years. But his art didn't really enter the cultural pantheon (museum retrospectives, record auction prices) until the reign of Bush 43. Koons's art looks the way Bush's pronouncements frequently sound: amiably banal at first glance. But as with the president's simple answers to tough questions, there's a lot of power—art-market power, in Koons's case—backing him up.