One triumph of conceptual art is to have answered that pesky question What is Art?
For the conceptual artist, Art is simply something presented as art in an art gallery. It consists of an object - any object will do - and a printed caption, put together in a whitewashed room.
I suspect the printed captions and the whitewashed rooms will come to be seen by future generations as clichés of this art movement, just as with the tiresome forms in Mannerism or the stark colours of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Conceptual art will then be seen - rightly, I think - as an effect and a function of the emergence of dedicated, well-lit galleries in the post-war world. Once these spaces became available, and the convention took hold of presenting an object in that space with a caption and calling it Art, I suppose conceptual art was a near-inevitability.
Damien Hirst has done well out of this artistic movement. He is not known for the galleries or for the printed captions, but he does create some of the objects - perhaps the least important component of conceptual art.
Hirst has been in the news recently, deploying the law: full details are here.
In summary, Hirst used both civil law and criminal law against a nineteen year artist called Cartrain. The civil law used was the law of copyright or design infringement and the criminal law used was theft.
Hirst of course cuts a ridiculous figure. Here, one cannot really improve upon Charlie Brooker in The Guardian:
"Overvalued, irksome, conceited, pudge-faced, balding, boring, awful celebrity art nob Damien Hirst has apparently become embroiled in a ludicrous feud with a 19-year-old graffiti artist called Cartrain. Hostilities erupted in 2008, when Cartrain created a sarcastic collage that included an image of Hirst's stupid bling-encrusted skull "artwork" (the one that reportedly sold for £50m at auction, although that figure is disputed by virtually anyone who still retains some degree of faith in humankind).
"When Cartrain's humorous collages were put up for sale online, Hirst reportedly complained to the Design and Artists Copyright Society. The website selling Cartrain's works buckled under legal pressure and surrendered the collages, along with an apology.
"Anyway, so far, so 2008. But the Hirst-Cartrain battle resumed in July this year, when the latter strolled into Tate Britain and allegedly removed a box of pencils from Hirst's art installation "Pharmacy". Cartrain then created a mock ransom note, demanding the return of his collages in exchange for the pencils. If the artworks weren't given back, then the pencils would be "sharpened".
"All rather daft and annoying. But a few weeks ago, Cartrain was arrested by Scotland Yard's art and antiques squad and told that the pencils had been valued at £500,000. The officers also initially arrested Cartrain's father, on the grounds that he was "suspected of harbouring the pencils".
(Er, where was The Guardian's libel reader when we needed him/her? Imagine what Simon Singh could have got away with...)
From a legal perspective, Hirst appears generally to be in the right. The theft seems obvious, even if the police involvement is needlessly heavy-handed. The copyright or design infringement may be less clear-cut, as does the apparent remedy of forced delivery-up of the infringing pieces, but Hirst is (on balance) within his legal rights.
But - as with another legal manoeuvre we can all think of - his use of the law here is misconceived. The issues involved really could be better dealt with by other means.
However, one cannot be surprised by Hirst.
I see this readiness of a conceptual artist to use the law in such a misconceived way as similar to that of some CAM practitioners and various religious enthusiasts.
At least neither Cartrain nor Charlie Brooker accused Damien f happily promoting bogus art without a jot of talent.
(And nor do I...)