Downstairs at the White Cube gallery in Duke Street, there are two efficient young women with computers (not Art), a glass table (also not Art), an 8ft by 6ft stainless steel cabinet full of surgical implements (Art), and a huge multi-coloured disc recalling the objects one made as a child with a painting-machine called Spiromatic (Art).
These last two were made by Damien Hirst. The "spin painting", of household gloss on canvas, named "Beautiful, pop, spinning, ice creamy, whirling, expanding painting", costs around pounds 15,000, and is one of a series that sold out in two weeks. The other, called "Still" - big, sinister, full of forceps, pliers and pincers - has been bought by an American collector. "Would you buy it?" asks Jopling in his engaging way. "You'd have to ask how much it costs first," he wheedles. How much does it cost? I obediently enquire. "pounds 45,000," he replies.
At this moment, Jay Jopling is showing a six-minute Super 8 film by 32- year-old British artist Tracey Emin. Jopling, six foot three, Gilbert and George-style suit (no qualms about wearing brown in town), flicks it on to his television set. He watches through big, black-framed specs, his silence discouraging speech, his smile gleeful. Images of Margate appear, then Emin, in little-girl tones, describes her life: I remember the first time some one asked me to grab their balls. I remember the power it gave me. It wasn't always like that. Sometimes they would just come.Then they would leave me there, wherever I was, half-naked. "I love this bit," Jopling interrupts. The reason why these men wanted to fuck me, a girl of 14, was because they weren't men. They were less. Less than human. They were pathetic...
Tracey Emin remembers meeting Jopling at a dinner party for the gallery owner Tanya Gruner. He had his glasses thrust up his nose. "It's a trick he can do," she says. "I thought it was a bit stupid." Emin said that, if he gave her pounds 10, she would send him three letters, one marked personal. "A month later," says Jopling, "I got this extraordinary letter, telling me about the most personal things in her life, about her abortion - it was almost embarrassing to read it." They swapped ideas - and Emin had her first show at the White Cube gallery in 1993.
In 1994, Jopling took her to America where, as a part of an art-fair in New York, Emin sat in a bed wearing a negligee at the Gramercy Park Hotel. The dealer sold her bedspread for pounds 2,560. This year, at the group show "Minky Manky" in London, she exhibited the memorable "Everybody I've Ever Slept With:1963-1995", a tent inscribed with the names of all her ex-boyfriends. Art Stardom now beckons. The prestigious American magazine, Art Forum, recently devoted two pages to her, describing her as "Sandra Bernhard and [Joseph] Beuys rolled into one". Her drawings - beautiful, scratchy, violent, naive - are selling for pounds 600 each. This, as Joplin says, is how "it" happens.
Emin is happening at a time when a breath of optimism is enlivening the British art market. Young artists are winning prestigious prizes both here and abroad; European gallereries are opening in London; youthful work, exposed by the Saatchi Collection and the progressive Serpentine Gallery, is being taken seriously; and curators and gallery owners are seemingly more enlightened.
The contemporary art gang is led by Damien Hirst, partly because he is genuinely respected, and partly because his talents extend to an acute understanding of the media. Other members are Gavin Turk, Itai Doran, Marcus Harvey, Marcus Taylor, Marc Quinn, Gary Hume, John Frankland, Brad Lochore, Rachel Whiteread, Mark Wallinger and Sarah Lucas. The first six of these are represented by Jay Jopling. They are not linked by style so much as sensibility and basic front. Some are concerned with conveying honest truths about the human body, usually their own; some are pushing boundaries by using video, film, photography, performance art and pop music; and the majority are linked by a fixation with the works and attitude of past art-jesters, especially Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamps and Andy Warhol. Their detractors think that, in conceptual art, Beuys had said all there was to be said by 1979. The genre lingers on, according to the critic Robert Hughes, because "it is so easy to do".
Celia Lyttelton, an artist and art writer who has observed the new art gang, says, "they are all control freaks. They all stick together, stand by each other. It is a very close network. They have psychological power over each other and an infallible faith in what they are doing. Like a weird religion. They are all very guarded - they have to be, because it could all fall flat. The cracks are already beginning to appeal. The closure of the Aperto at the Venice Biennale was very significant in that it was seen as a sign that some curators think there has been enough sensationalism."
But others believe that this generation of young artists, having overcome the recession and the continual cuts in arts funding, are, thanks to punky belligerence, helping Britain regain its originality. In the late Eighties, no one was helping these artists, so they helped themselves, by staging events in warehouses, sending taxis to pick up curators, showing their art in their own homes, in shops, restaurants - anywhere.They knew, as do pop musicians (with whom they have much in common), that it doesn't matter where or even how you play, as long as you play.
There are many other players in this game. No one would have passed Go if Charles Saatchi or Nicholas Serota, head of the Tate Gallery, were not hopping around the board. But Jay Jopling seems to be at the centre. Somehow some see him as the consummate marketing man and manipulator, and compare him to Malcolm McLaren and Max Clifford. As David Lee, editor of Art Review, recently wrote: "Today's artist must be dominated, programmed, groomed, managed. We're talking total control here."
Weaving easily between lunches with curators, teas with West End weirdos, and drinks with Notting Hill bohos, Belgian collectors, meritocrats and aristocrats - Jopling is as at ease in the Groucho Club as he is watching films of Mona Hatoum's Eustachian tubes at her studio in East London. The art world is a small world - he knows everybody in it, and, perhaps more importantly, a lot of people outside it. Equipped with an extraordinary memory, he remembers who they all are and how to approach them. He and his artists reap much press - he knows how to get attention. At the 1992 Unfair in Cologne (set up by galleries who had been refused entrance to the official art fair), Jopling's stand displayed twin sisters who sat and knitted underneath two identical Damien Hirst spot paintings. Jopling had been a fan of Gilbert and George since he was 16, and he had seen how the New York Art Stars were sold when he visited Manhattan in the Eighties. He has long understood that art is not just about silent galleries, it is also about parties, soundbites and capturing the popular imagination.
Jeremy "Jay" Jopling, 32, is the second and youngest son of the Rt Hon Michael Jopling, Conservative MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former Minister of Agriculture - appointed by Mrs Thatcher in 1983, fired in 1987. Sir Michael has been described in the Financial Times as conjuring up the image "of a slightly dense country gentleman, but he is shrewder than he looks". He and his wife Gail live in a period house in north Yorkshire, where their taste runs to Vermeer (inside) and souped-up Sierras (outside). The owner of five hundred acres of arable farmland, now run by his eldest son Nicholas, perhaps he can best be summed up, as most politicians are, by Alan Clark. A June date of Clark's diaries notes: "He (Jopling) and Gail (so pretty, with her red hair and lovely skin) take their holidays in France in leathers on an old Honda. Now that is sporting."
Jay and Nicholas went to Eton, where Jay was in MCM Meredith with the photographer Rory Carnegie. "We were losers," Carnegie says of their house. "Particularly untalented. I think I was the first person to get into POP for 30 years."
Carnegie remembers Jopling as someone who was competitive but not sporty, and who staged a play, written by the Marquis de Sade, in the basement of the squash court. "He was always in the shadow of his brother Nicholas, who was very cool, one of the first punks - Nick was the Jopling of the school. Jay was very much Jopling junior."
Asked now if there were advantages to being an Old Etonian, Jay notes that "Eton does not give you much of a training in the arts", nor did it help particularly "in terms of contacts". But the school "gives you great self-confidence - there is no question about that - the self-confidence to follow your own ideas through." He says he didn't really like schools.
"I always wanted to get out and do things. It was the same at Edinburgh University."
It was whilst attending Edinburgh University, to study history of art, that he staged an art auction raising money for children in Africa. It involved a trip to New York at the important moment when the East Village art boom had spawned a constellation of Art Stars. Jopling met many of them ("it was an eye opener"), including the notoriously belligerent Jean- Michel Basquiat who, appearing naked, was persuaded to provide a graffitied door that raised thousands of pounds.
Another major moment came in 1987, when he walked into a Chelsea pub with a band named the Love Bastards, fronted by Marc Quinn, then a singer, who had read history of art at Cambridge. "He worked with the sculptor Barry Flanagan during his holidays," Jopling remembers. "He knew that I was interested in art, and he showed me his work, in a tiny little bedsit in Chelsea. There was one, a gladiator with an alien thing coming out of its chest. He was only able to cast them in bronze because he had found an emerald in the back of a taxi. I said, 'these are interesting; I really like them', when, in fact, they were the ugliest things I had ever seen. We did a show really quickly. I rented a place in Wapping. Nobody bought anything."
That was eight years ago. Then, in 1992, Quinn's work became front-page news when it was revealed that "Self", a head made from his own blood, had been bought by the Saatchi Collection. This month (until 20 August), "Emotional Detox", a series of seven lead body casts, will be shown in Art Now, the Tate's new gallery dedicated to "all forms of contemporary art". Quinn will also be showing, at White Cube, "The Blind Leading the Blind".
Mona Hatoum, whom Jopling also represents, is now one of the four artists short-listed (Damien Hirst is another) for this year's pounds 20,000 Turner prize. Jopling went to her East End apartment and saw "Foreign Body", a work now in the Tate.
"She said, 'I'm just going to make a cup of tea - look at this', and there was a video. She had used a microscopic endoscopic camera, starting in her hair, then into her eye. her mouth and inside her body. She came back into the room and I felt I knew her extraordinarily intimately."
Artists like Hatoum are committed to autobiographical honesty. Jopling himself is reserved to the point of secrecy. Voluble when talking of his artists, he is at his least articulate when asked about himself: "He's very suspicious," says Rory Carnegie. This begs questions about what is being guarded. Certainly the shadow of a young, bun-throwing Hooray seems to linger. "There was a point in the early days," says someone who observed an extrovert display at a birthday party, "when he would do anything to be avant-garde. He was very arrogant when he was young. I remember him telling me that the world was for taking things out of."
Artists traditionally hail from less privileged backgrounds than gallery owners. Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst, the lad from Leeds, come from very different parts of Yorkshire, but they discovered a mutual affection for Leeds football club and decided to work together. "Artists think differently," Jopling admits. "They're engaging, they're difficult, they play games, and they make you think hard and keep you on your toes. I think it's nice to be on the edge."
Their partnership has survived the departure of his girlfriend, American jewellery designer Maia Norman, who left him to live with Hirst and bear his child. "I don't think it was that traumatic," says one friend, "and Damien and Jay both needed each other professionally." Says another: "The relationship with Maia had been winding down. Jay had been away a lot - busy - that kind of thing."
There have been other girlfriends - one returned to her husband, another was stolen from a poet - and he recently broke off a relationship with a woman living in New York. But Jopling, who is very close to his mother, may in his romantic life be suffering as a result of time spent fostering a family of prodigies. Jopling may not manipulate his artists; the reverse may be true. The reason Tracey Emin was drawn towards working with him was because he "is not an authority figure". Jopling himself says that he tends not to "fall out" with people, and that he avoids confrontation - "it makes getting up in the morning easier."
The same cannot be said of the artists with whom he chooses to work. Sean Landers promoted his show at the White Cube by sending out letters outlining his problems with premature ejaculation. Araki, the Japanese photographer, displayed pictures of schoolgirls submitting to sadomasochism. Jopling has now been talking to Kerith Wyn-Evans, a friend of the late Leigh Bowery, about the possibility of showing a series of homoerotic photographs, and to Sam Taylor-Wood, whose "Slut" he admired. ("It was a self-portrait with love bites on her neck").
Conceptual art tends to assume the form of A Joke and, to a certain extent, the Marcel wave will always amuse those who think, correctly, that it is dangerous to take the art world too seriously. "Most of the artists I work with don't have a very high regard for the art world," Jopling explains. "It's very closed and elitist." He still giggles recollecting Gavin Turk's degree show, when Royal College examiners walked in to a huge, empty, white gallery to find an English Heritage commemorative blue plaque saying "Gavin Turk - Sculptor - worked here 1989-1991". "Where's the art?" they asked. "That's it," came the reply.
Jopling now sells an edition of this plaque for pounds 250. "You should buy one of those," he says; "it's a wonderful thing." The customer is comforted to hear that he owns another piece by Gavin Turk; indeed, it was the cause of their meeting. "He showed his liquorice pipe in a group show near Tower Bridge. It was in a glass case, ludicrously significant, and it was only by looking very closely at it that you realised it wasn't a liquorice pipe at all but was, in fact, made of bronze painted to look like a liquorice pipe. I thought it was a real work of art and I bought it immediately."
How much did it cost?
"I can't remember, I'd have to look it up."
Hundreds or thousands?
"Oh, it was over a thousand."
The price of an art work, like compensation for medical negligence, is difficult to estimate. A collector recently paid pounds 35,000 for a plug hole at Sotheby's, causing much merriment, accompanied by the observation that every time he looked at it he would see where his money had gone. The artist, Robert Gober, an American sculptor currently showing in the Rites of Passage exhibition at the Tate, probably did not make "Drains" to inspire hilarity. Gober is not one of Jopling's clients, but the sale re-emphasised the age-old questions which bedevil the history of art, particularly in the arena in which White Cube artists work, where Damien Hirst is allowed to say that "I like the idea of minimum effort for maximum effect".
Jopling says, "I am often asked, 'how do you judge a work of art?'. There are no real criteria. The only methodology is how profound an effect a work of art has on you, and that can be judged as to whether it makes you think a little bit differently, whether it stays in your mind and changes the way you look at familiar things."
He is aware that it is he who establishes his clients' prices, but says that they are "reasonable". He did not, he points out, benefit from the boom of the Eighties, when art became a futures market. "When I started putting on exhibitions, the market was very depressed." The Eighties claimed many victims - the graffiti artists of New York being memorable examples - and the Art Star is as vulnerable as any other star to the vagaries of popular taste. "I think," says Jopling, "that the responsible artist and the responsible artist's representative understand that at one time an artist may be very fashionable, and at another he may not.When you choose to work with an artist, belief in the work is a fundamental requirement."
And is it possible to protect his clients against the backlash of hype?
"It is very easy to say no to an interview."