Oh, for the honesty of a good bribe

Click to follow

There's a nice moment in Mark Costello's new novel Big If when he's rounding out the portrait of one of the Secret Service bodyguards at the heart of his book.

There's a nice moment in Mark Costello's new novel Big If when he's rounding out the portrait of one of the Secret Service bodyguards at the heart of his book. O'Teen is one of the younger members of the Vice President's protection team and is notable chiefly for his addiction to gambling. Usually he follows sports but in late winter, after the football season has ended and before the baseball season starts up, his addiction is forced into other outlets - including dog shows, ice dancing and even piano competitions and other cultural events. Like any serious punter he likes to study form: "Who here knows anything about the Venice Biennale?" he asks his colleagues, during a lull at Andrews Airforce Base. "What league are they in?" one of them replies. "It's not a team, you mutt," says the indignant O'Teen. "It's an invitational art tournament... I went long last time on quirky intimate gesso washes and these doom-laden neo-Cornell boxes, betting with my heart. Sidney gave me juicy odds." Sidney got his money too. Never bet with the heart.

I was reminded of the gag when reading about Sean Fox, the jockey who dismounted from his horse mid-race with an agility Baryshnikov might have envied. At least, I thought, arts betting hasn't been accused of rigging yet. Because Costello's joke isn't entirely detached from reality. People bet on the Booker and the Turner Prize after all. Odds are set, and there are favourites and long-shots. I assume that there are people who bet on the outcome of the Leeds Piano Competition, since there is virtually no field of competitive endeavour which hasn't had a book made for it, and checking out the Specials section of Ladbroke's website the other day I was intrigued to see that I could have got 7/4 odds on Maria Haukass Storeng to take pole position in Norwegian Pop Idol, although risk junkies might prefer Roald Haarr at a tempting 25/1.

What you wouldn't expect in this field though is any kind of gambling coup. How exactly would a shortlisted artist throw the Turner Prize? Wander up to Nick Serota two days before the judging and say that Brian Sewell had got it all right and he was planning to chuck decomposing cadavers in favour of watercolours of kittens? The Booker would be even trickier - since there's not much you can do to rein in the masterwork that's already got you on to the shortlist. As DBC Pierre demonstrated this year, revelations of a fraudulent past can't be relied upon to ditch your chances. If you went on Front Row and explained that your sensitive account of coming of age in Nuneaton was actually a metaphorical plea for race purity and white supremacy I guess you'd make things sticky for the judges - but who's to say they wouldn't just take it to be some kind of satirical gesture?

I had a pleasant 10 or 15 seconds in which I complacently assumed this said something significant about cultural activity as opposed to sports. As a recovering victim of compulsory games (one day at a time, you know) I'm always on the lookout for evidence of the morally debilitating effects of sport - and the notional incorruptibility of arts contests seemed to make a telling contrast with the frequency of corruption in virtually all forms of professional competition. Those who get pious about sport tend to boast about the clarity of its moral choices - but in practice that clarity just seems to make it more likely that people will cheat. By contrast art doesn't have a simple morality at all - and yet broadly speaking the Olympian standards seem to prevail. Most artists - good and bad - earnestly strive to do their best - and nothing exists to induce them to do otherwise. That was the fantasy, anyway.

In fact only a fool would believe that culture is without its attendant corruptions - as great in their way as the offer of a brown envelope full of cash in return for pulling up short of the finish line. And what's even worse is that these corruptions are virtually impossible to pin down - even by those who've been corrupted. In the case of Sean Fox we can be certain that there's at least one man who knows whether he jumped or fell. But what about the novelist who achieves extraordinary success with a book which she knows to be flawed - and then obediently writes another one just like it? Or the artist who works in an uncongenial style which he knows is more likely to find official favour? Or even artists who aspire to obscurity because they are contemptuous of popular success? Separating out the emulsion of bad faith and good intentions in cases like that make the Jockey Club's inquiries look positively elementary by comparison. In fact it might even make you hanker after the simplicity of a good honest bribe.