You're getting a medal from the State Department. What service have you done for your country?
There's a program called Art in Embassies, and it's celebrating its 50th anniversary. I started to participate in the '90s. My work has been on loan to embassies in Czechoslovakia and France. Now there's a work of mine, Tulips, in Beijing.
One of your big interests as an artist is sex, and some of your work has led people to think of you as more provocateur than diplomat. Is that a misconception?
Sometimes honesty can just be very shocking, and I was always as truthful as possible about the concerns and interests that I had. But I think I developed a sense of the responsibility of being involved so profoundly in a dialogue about art.
No, but I think I'm aware of the audience and that there's an appropriate place and time for different dialogues.
Do different cultures respond to your work differently?
I think a European population is more used to being engaged with art. It's very, very easy to have a dialogue about philosophy, psychology, theology, physics and aesthetics there. Americans are more intimidated by art. They haven't really come to realize that art is a tool, that you don't have to have any prior knowledge in any area of the arts to participate.
You're known for your giant copies of lowbrow objects. You've said you do what the Beatles would have done if they had been sculptors. What did you mean?
A lot of imagery used in art is really just a metaphor for the acceptance of others. I've been trying to be involved in a dialogue about removing judgment. I work with ready-mades because I try to reassure the viewer that everything around them is in play. Everything is perfect. Nothing is less worthy than something else.
You employ a lot of artists. Could you explain how it's still your work if you haven't touched it?
I touch these things in a different way. It's like when you start to cast metal, you work with a foundry, and you have to trust people to handle the different processes. I've created systems where I'm responsible for every gesture. Every mark on that painting--even though somebody [else] may be applying it--is the exact way I'd do it, the exact color I'd use.
In November, one of your five Tulips sculptures sold for more than $33 million at Christie's--a record for your work. Does that change the way you feel about a piece?
While I'm aware of what took place, my involvement with my work is here, is now. The reason I make my work is to increase my own parameters. I want to feel in life. I want strong sensations.
You didn't think, I knew I should have made six Tulips?
No. I'm pleased that things do well, but it doesn't change what I would be doing today.
You're a former commodities broker. Do you see contemporary art as a good investment?
I tend to collect more modernism and back. I've never gotten too involved in contemporary art because I never wanted to acquire one artist and upset another friend.
Am I right in saying you have seven children?
I have eight. My wife and I, we really love children. There's nothing better I've experienced in life than interacting with my family.
The late TIME art critic Robert Hughes said you probably couldn't carve your initials on a tree. Considering how successful you are, what would you want to say to him now?
You know, I'm actually very, very skilled in drawing and painting. [At school] I'd always win awards and scholarships. But if you have vision in life, you can do anything. I don't believe people are born with talent that's some abstract thing. It's about being able to have vision.