No one can accuse the English of not taking their artists seriously. We have Kim Howells, a Culture minister no less, accusing the Turner prize candidates of producing "cold, mechanical conceptual bullshit". And we have Walter Sickert, the British impressionist, accused of being Jack the Ripper. That would have been conceptual art of a quite different order.
It's most unlikely, of course. Although the crime writer Patricia Cornwell has spent millions on testing DNA samples, the most she has established is that he may have written one of the letters to the police about the subject. Otherwise her suspicions are based on no more than the fact that the artist took a close interest in the case and even visited the scene of one of the Ripper's crimes.
He wasn't alone. The Ripper case dominated his times even more than that of the sniper in Washington today. And if an artist who is keen on painting low life in reaction to academic art gets obsessed with the cause celebre of the day, that's what artists tend to do - and should do.
Which is all the so-called conceptual artists are doing today, when it comes to it. Paint was the preferred medium of Sickert's time, not least because technical changes in the medium were revolutionising its possibilities. The relatively small painting that could be hung on a wall was the preferred form because that was where the market was. Art had moved from the decoration of public institutions to the adornment of the bourgeois home.
The video camera, plastic, formaldehyde and industrial materials are the preferred medium of today because they are the texture of our life. The installation is the preferred form because the main market is in galleries - the Saatchis and the White Cube that have long dominated the Turner Prize. Art has become self-referential because society has become self-obsessed. Its structures have become more complex because it expects to be shown in the large open spaces of museums and galleries.
Mr Howells is right on that. Where the money is, so the tide of art follows. But for him to argue that art has lost "any kind of purchase on public consciousness" is just nonsense. Look at the numbers going to Tate Modern (which has a pretty poor stock of international modern art). And look at the interest that has been generated by the Turner prize. The one thing that everyone comprehends is an unmade bed, a film of a building site or rude words written over and over again. They have no problem in understanding it. They're just not convinced that it's "art".
Which is where the whole debate gets so bogged down in this country. Mr Howells has every right to his own opinion. The fact that he is a Culture minister (for films, tourism and broadcasting in fact) should be no bar to saying what he dislikes. Nor can he be easily dismissed as a philistine. He's a former art student himself. Who else could write such a sentence as: "The attempts of contextualisation are particularly pathetic and symptomatic of a lack of conviction." And who else, after that mouthful, could accuse this newspaper of launching a "smug, sneering attack" on him for his comments. If nothing else, he has drummed up a bit of passion.
If you are going to go to an exhibition of conceptual art, why not make it interactive by pinning abusive notes on the wall. "If this is the best the British art establishment can come up, then God help us." It's that word "establishment" that gives him away. Shove that into your comments and you're straight into the world of sneers against the aesthetes, the arties, the privileged and the elites - all the people the English love to hate.
And you can rely on the museum world to give you all the ammunition you want. Asked to respond on the radio yesterday, the Tate apologist compared art today to "a football game, you need to know the rules before you can approach it". …