Thursday, October 29, 2009

London round-up

Having failed to produce a post each day as I'd promised, and with the London trip already a couple of weeks behind me, I've decided to wrap the thing up with a single post consisting of jottings about different exhibitions. Most are still on view as I write, meaning if you're headed for England around now, you can catch them live.

Damien Hirst: After the pasting he's got from critics, it seems appropriate that black and blue are the predominant colours in Hirst's show. Its title, No Love Lost: The Blue Paintings also sounds prescient.


Most of the twenty-five canvases were produced for the billionaire Ukrainian collector Victor Pinchuk between 2006 and 2008, and are being displayed until the end of January 2010 at the Wallace Collection, a museum in central London best known for 17th and 18th century paintings and objets d'art. Hirst has painted every image himself, eschewing his usual practice of outsourcing that side of art creation to employees. The setting inside a grand museum, the reference to Picasso in the title and to Francis Bacon in the imagery, point at hubristic ambition almost impossible to live up to. Outside that context, and the rumoured 50 million dollars paid for the pictures, I liked the work, particularly the two triptychs, of which one, titled The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth is pictured above. The moody blue-black brought to mind a poem by D.H. Lawrence called Bavarian Gentians.

I hadn't been to the Wallace Collection before, and found it an exceptional group of artefacts, the only drawback being its concentration on the 18th century, which in my opinion is a low point in the history of European painting. In delivering lectures summarising the history of art, I'm flummoxed when, after considering Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian; and then 17th century masters like Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Velazquez, I arrive at Watteau and Boucher. I skip quickly past them and neoclassical artists such as David, to find relief in the 19th century, in Gericault, Delacroix and Turner.

The Collection also contains a substantial armoury, which includes Tipu Sultan's sword. But owning Tipu's sword is like owning Sachin Tendulkar's bat. There are so many of them. Vijay Mallya bought one a few years ago, and another was on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as part of:

Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts. The show is high on atmosphere, but low on spectacular or unusual display items. Barely worth the ticket price for anybody familiar with the V&A's collection and those of major British and Indian museums.


Anish Kapoor at Lisson Gallery: A number of shiny pieces crying out to be bought. I saw this show on my first day in London, and was rather irritated by its overt commercialness. After catching the survey at the Royal Academy, I felt more generously towards the Lisson works. Kapoor employs a couple of dozen workers in his studio, and large projects like Svayambh probably don't provide him substantial margins. The man has to make money somewhere, and I'm sure his admirers are eager to acquire easy-to-display items.

N S Harsha at Victoria Miro: Harsha did the sensible thing, showing his new, somewhat expressionist explorations at Sakshi in Bombay, and sticking with the tried and tested -- delicately brushed images using repeated motifs -- for his London exhibition. He created, also, a fine installation on the upper level, though it was overshadowed by Grayson Perry's giant tapestry on the top floor.

Rina Bannerjee and Raqib Shaw at Thomas Gibson Fine Art: The two make a good pairing, since both are interested in decoration. Shaw, in my opinion, really gets it, pushing ornateness to its limits without apology, and combining it with violent, morbid imagery.


Bannerjee, meanwhile, muddies the waters, uncertain of how critical she ought to be about the decorative values she employs. A strong set of paintings nevertheless.


RAQS Media Collective at Tate Britain: This group came to the art world as Amar Kanwar did: through the intervention of Okwui Enwezor, who selected RAQS for Documenta 2002. They produce video and web based pieces that often incorporate historical or other documentary material. The three, Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, are super-intelligent, but I have always found their work visually uninvolving and their texts pretentious. This was certainly true of The Surface of Each Day is a Different Planet (the title itself gives an idea of the preciousness that puts me off) at Tate Britain. I don't have the voice-over from this video to provide as an example of what I mean by pretentious, but here's a randomly selected extract from the texts on their website:
"First, let a map be drawn. Let a cadastral reckoning be inked of who owns what, who owes what to whom. Let empty lots yield. Let letters and numbers do the talking. Let the land be silent.
Who has ever heard the land speak?"
They are fond of using immense rhetorical questions such as, "Who has ever heard the land speak?"
RAQS also featured at Frieze with a sculptural work, a clock containing words instead of numbers, words like epiphany, anxiety, duty, guilt, indifference, and so on. Again, pretentious is the first word that sprang to mind.


But RAQS have featured at some of the most prestigious exhibitions and museums in the world, so maybe there's something in their output that I'm missing.
At Tate Britain, they were provided a prominent room right next to:

Turner and the Masters: The show juxtaposes works by Titian, Rembrandt, Canaletto and others with canvases by Turner. Plenty of seriously good stuff, but my biggest take-away from the show was the ineptness of Turner when it comes to faces. He's Britain's greatest artist, no doubt, matchless when it comes to atmospheric landscapes, but he produced few, if any, memorable portraits.


The show demonstrates that the paintings which inspired Turner often contained really interesting countenances, but his own versions relegated these to tertiary status. Even when he did give such figures prominence, he usually did a far better job with the background.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Subodh Gupta at Hauser & Wirth

"Oh no". That was my first reaction on entering Hauser&Wirth's gallery in Old Bond Street and glimpsing Et Tu, Duchamp?, Subodh Gupta's larger-than-life-size bronze sculpture on a marble plinth.


Back in 1919, Marcel Duchamp sketched a mustache and goatee on a cheap reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. He subtitled this new artwork L.H.O.O.Q., a pun on 'Elle a chaud au cul', meaning, literally, "She has a hot ass".


The self-consciously juvenile desecration of the image was part of the artist's questioning of the iconic status accorded to certain artworks.
By casting a monumental version of L.H.O.O.Q., Gupta signals that Duchamp has achieved the sacred reputation he appeared to decry. But Duchamp's art was always double-edged, too deeply ironic to be reducible to a manifesto of anti-art. He made miniaturised editions of his early output, and carefully supervised reproductions of lost works, evidence that he did not view them as throw-away jokes, and that he was not averse to a place in the artists' pantheon.
All this is well-established now. The question is: what has Gupta added to the discourse by creating Et Tu Duchamp?
For a while, I wondered if the Gurgaon-based artist, influenced by Rhonda Shearer's thesis that L.H.O.O.Q. merges Duchamp's self-portrait with La Gioconda, had created a sculpture that borrowed his own features. After looking closely, though, I concluded that the bearded woman's slightly masculine visage was an accident of the transfer to three-dimensions rather than an art historical intervention.
The inspirations behind Gupta's art tend to be very simple; he is instinctive and emotional rather than cerebral. This has served him excellently in the past, but a more intellectual approach was called for when he decided to cite fellow artists. The other such work in the show is Jeff The Koons, and consists of multiple casts of the box in which Koons' puppies are packed and dispatched.


There's an echo of Warhol's Brillo boxes here, but little to keep one looking at the work beyond admiring the way frayed cardboard has been rendered in metal. The same question that sprang to my mind in the Ducamp room was accentuated by the Koons work: What is the point of this?
The point, if there is any, is that Subodh is trying to navigate away from his signature stainless steel pots and pans. There are stainless steel works in Hauser & Wirth's Piccadilly space,


but the show as a whole takes off in far too many different directions. Apart from the Duchamp and Koons strand, there is an axe with a neon tube coiled around its handle; a fibreglass tree breaking through a wall; ; a series of Yves Kleinesque body prints of the artist's genitals, titled Master Bet (not the only bad pun in the show); casts of potatoes and mangoes; and fans with swastika blades.


The black and white pairing indicates the two different meanings of the form: auspicious in India, a symbol of hatred in much of the world. The room with the ceiling fans also has two massive stainless steel spoons nestling on the floor below, and is the most elegant section of the exhibition.
The word 'transitional' kept coming up in conversations about Common Man (that's the show's title), but as one expert (who probably does not want to be named) pointed out, a major solo in one of the world's leading galleries is the worst possible time to produce transitional work.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Anish Kapoor and India

Of the two dozen or so shows, big and small, that I took in during my London stay, the most exhilarating was undoubtedly Anish Kapoor's mid-career retrospective at the Royal Academy. The artist presents visitors to Burlington House with an astonishing play of colour, texture and volume, from the gravity defying metal balloons in the courtyard,


through the illusory optics of his signature mirrored stainless steel, to a room filled with coils of cement placed on wooden pallets, and another occupied by a rusted steel hull.


Among the newest works on view are two that use a mix of wax, red pigment and vaseline. Shooting Into a Corner consists of a cannon that is fired every twenty minutes after being loaded with a cylinder of compacted wax.



The second 'waxwork', titled Svayambh, is a 30-tonne red block on tracks, moving slowly up and down five rooms of the museum, slathering the arches and floor with goop as it goes. It is sculpture reinvented, occupying time as well as space, challenging the attention spans of room-a-minute viewers and rewarding the patience of those who stay through its journey. It is a train, a closing door, an eclipse, a phallus.
This last association is hinted at by the work's title, which calls to mind svayambhu (or self-generated) lingams worshipped in temples across India, and emphasised by the indentations created in the massive block by edges of columns in the Academy's arched doorways.


The incursion of the lingam within the negative space of classical arches inside one of Britain's most venerable institutions is an audacious postcolonial gesture, though one that has been entirely ignored by British critics. Svayambh has been displayed before in France and Germany, but it is as if those were just rehearsals for its proper staging at the Royal Academy.
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that the political associations of Svayambh and Shooting into a Corner have been overlooked, because Kapoor is not known as a political artist. Among the most frequently cited quotes by him is, "I have nothing to say". But he also stated, in the same interview and almost in the same breath, "I hate formalism, because formalism implies a death of the subject and the subject is the only reason to be an artist."
With Svayambh, it is as if Kapoor is consciously re-acknowledging the Indian side of him, a side manifest in his early work, later downplayed as he sought to evade the label of 'Indian artist', which can now emerge again in a manner that is not reductive.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Saffronart discussion

Last Thursday, Dinesh Vazirani, Amrita Jhaveri and I were on a panel at Saffronart's London space, talking about 'Junctures and Departures: Locating Modern and Contemporary Indian Art Today'. The hourlong discussion has been uploaded on Saffronart's website, along with a transcript, and can be accessed here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thoughts on Frieze and the thawing market


The dealers who had rented booths at the Frieze art fair this year played it safe. There were paintings, and more paintings, and yet more paintings. Damien Hirst, showing a suite of canvases elsewhere summed up the mood: "paintings are easier to shift – even in a recession people like paintings". Critics didn't like Hirst's paintings; in fact, it is fair to say they hated them, but I'll leave details of that show for another post.
Frieze is just seven years old, and still fairly small, but appears to have lost its edge. Maybe that is part of the process of growing up, but the link between the recession and conservative choices needs further consideration. Experimental art is supposed to be subversive, to question the established order, yet it flourishes most when the rich are awash with cash. Enron Corporation amassed one of the best collections of ultra-contemporary art in the years it was profiting from deregulation and scamming its way to near the top of the Fortune 500. Many of the financial geniuses who drove the world to the brink of bankruptcy last year are major art collectors. It's about time critics stop pretending that avant-garde-ish art serves some revolutionary political purpose (Indians are particularly prone to this belief).
The only Indian gallery featured at Frieze this year was Project 88, in the 'Frame' section reserved for new spaces. Sree Goswami showcased Sarnath Banerjee's amusing cartoons in her booth, and displayed a cute piece by Neha Choksi in the sculpture park nearby. Choksi's A Child's Grove was given a privileged position, between works by Louise Bourgeois and Paul McCarthy. According to news reports, a number of Sarnath's works were picked up for prices around USD 10,000 - 12,000 each, which is pretty good going.

There were few effects of the recession visible in London in the week I was there. The city seemed as busy as ever, all the restaurants and shops I visited were overflowing, and commuters in the Tube were more smartly dressed than I remember. Friends tell me that March and April were awful months, with 'To Let' signs on every second window and a doom-laden atmosphere. Obviously, a corner has been turned, though too late for Gordon Brown to survive as Prime Minister beyond next year's general election.

A year ago, it seemed that fundamental changes would be necessary to get the global financial house in order. Those hopes (or fears) have faded, and business as usual seems to be the order of the day. But what if the crisis does result in a long term restructuring of priorities in terms of consumption versus saving, and executive compensation? In the US thirty years ago, the average CEO of a large corporation received a wage about 50 times that of the average worker. If that seems high, consider that in 2007 the figure had changed drastically in favour of the rich: the average CEO earned more than 500 times as much as the average worker that year. A similar pattern played out elsewhere, and income inequality showed a significant rise in most regions of the world (It is worth mentioning that income inequality between regions declined in this period, due mainly to the development of China's economy). The growing wealth in the hands of very few was a crucial factor in fuelling the boom in art prices at the high end. If a situation were to arise in which the richest 10% earn a progressively smaller portion of total income, it will probably mean a long term recession in the art market.

Speaking of the Indian scene, I've heard that a couple of art funds are about to reach maturity, and are carrying a large stock of work. I've long believed that the substantial share of total purchases controlled by art funds in India will lead to a greater drop in this country relative to other markets because, unlike individual collectors who tend to hang on to works till prices turn upwards, funds with set redemption dates have to sell at whatever price they can get. Even as supply is constrained in mature markets, it will be unrestricted in India. Among readers of this blog, the very knowledgeable Torntash has suggested that funds will find arrangements outside of conventional direct sales to dispose off their assets. In a few weeks, we should have a hint of how successful such unconventional methods have been.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pause

I'm in London for the Frieze art fair and events surrounding it. The schedule's been so crammed that I haven't had a chance to put down any thoughts about the work I've seen. Once I'm back in Bombay, which will be next Tuesday, I'll publish a post every day to make up for lost time. Loads of artists to write about, Subodh Gupta, Anish Kapoor, N S Harsha, Gyan Panchal, Rina Bannerjee, Raqib Shaw and the Raqs Media Collective prominent among them.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jawahar and Edwina get


There's been speculation about why Quentin Tarantino chose to mis-spell the two words in the title Inglourious Basterds. I'm in the camp that believes it was a way to get past publishing regulations. Every newspaper in Bombay has carried large advertisements for the movie, which would've been impossible had the 'e' in 'Basterds' been an 'a'.
A couple of decades ago, the second collaboration between Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi was called Sammy and Rosie get laid. A number of newspapers, including the New York Times, refused to carry publicity material for it, until the producers opted for the toned down Sammy and Rosie.
The Brits didn't have as many problems with Sammy and Rosie getting laid as the Americans did. In Bombay, there was a screening at the British Council, for which Kureishi was present. The head of the Council, Clive Brasnett I think it was, mentioned the title in his introduction without a hint of a chuckle: "We are very pleased to have Hanif with us to present his film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.." What annoyed the Brits in the audience that evening was the impression the film created that riots between whites and Asians were an everyday occurence. One rather worked-up man asked Kureishi during the session after the film, "Why do the characters have to shop in the bombed out supermarket the day after the riot? Couldn't they just go to the nearest intact one?" Kureishi looked abashed, and admitted the film probably exaggerated Britain's racial conflicts a tad.
As an aside, for any trivia buffs reading this, if you're asked, "In which film can you see Shashi Kapoor's bare butt?", the answer is not Siddharth or Heat and Dust, but Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. It is a Shashi Kapoor well past his prime, unfortunately.
Right now, our government is getting worked up over possible moral transgressions in the film Indian Summer, which concerns the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of India's last viceroy. Location shoots in India are imperative for a film like this, but the administration has put a spoke in the wheel by disallowing any intimacy between Nehru and Edwina. Even holding hands is beyond the pale, apparently. Deputed officials will ensure that everything is shot according to the approved script.
What the Delhi babus don't appear to have grasped is that sex generally takes place indoors, and location is irrelevant to an indoor shoot. What is to stop director Joe Wright (Atonement) from filming a Jawahar-Edwina romp in London after wrapping the location schedule? All we can do if that happens is to ban the film here, which will probably happen no matter how decorously the film depicts its central relationship.
Finally, another bit of unrelated trivia. The phrase 'Indian summer' has nothing to do with India. It refers to a period of warm weather that sometimes occurs in North America in late October. The confusion is all the fault of Columbus, of course.

Update, 23 October: The film shoot has been postponed because of an irreconcilable conflict between producers who want to focus on the Nehru-Edwina romance, and Indian authorities who are allergic to any hint of impropriety. I'm quite happy about the postponement, because the casting of Irrfan Khan as Nehru strikes me as disastrous.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: a return to form


Orson Welles' self-description, "I started at the top and worked my way down", was beginning to fit Quentin Tarantino's career graph. Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs, was electrifying; his next film, Pulp Fiction, a masterpiece. Jackie Brown, was pretty darn good, Kill Bill passable, and Death Proof pointless if occasionally amusing.
Now, with Inglourious Basterds, the man has resurrected his sagging reputation. Basterds is a self-indulgent movie that will appeal most to cinephiles, but possesses enough action, plot and character to keep wider audiences happy. I rate it above all but the first two of Tarantino's directorial efforts. Jackie Brown may be a better paced, better plotted film, but has none of the scope and lushness of Basterds (besides, audibility was an issue throughout the Pam Grier starrer).


The Basterds of the title are a group of Jewish, mainly American, soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who operate behind enemy lines during WWII, killing Nazis with notable brutality. Assisted by a German actress and a British film critic, they plot to eliminate the Nazi leadership during the premiere in Paris of a movie about a German war hero. The premiere is held in a theatre owned by a woman whose parents were killed under orders of the notorious 'Jew hunter' Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz), and who is plotting a massacre of her own.




From its opening shot, Basterds seeks to create apotheoses of movie stereotypes: the broken-nosed French peasant, the sophisticated but cruel Nazi, the blunt American and the plummy-accented Brit. We feel at each moment the presence of past WWII films, particularly those made in the sixties like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, and The Battle of the Bulge.
As indicated by virtually everybody who has written about the film, Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa steals the show. The polyglot actor is the film's greatest asset, but also its greatest flaw, insofar as there is no performance to balance his. Pitt has some very good moments and some indifferent ones; his effort at a Tennessee accent becomes too apparent in the odd scene.
The climactic conflagration in the theatre is meant to be a huge catharsis, a film-maker's revenge on history as it were. I'd rate it seven on ten. It was satisfying enough, but didn't give me goose flesh.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Roman Polanski and the Last Taboo


On March 10, 1977, the film maker Roman Polanski had sex with a 13 year old named Samantha Gailey in Jack Nicholson's Mullholland Drive mansion while the star of Polanski's masterpiece Chinatown was away. Polanski had told the girl and her mother he was interested in shooting Samantha for an issue of Vogue of which he was guest editor. After an initial shoot near the Gailey home, the then 43 year old director suggested a second session. Samantha wanted a chaperone, but a friend dropped out at the last minute, leaving her alone with Polanski. They shot a few pictures in Jaqueline Bisset's house before making their way to Nicholson's place. While driving her there, the Polish film maker asked if she had ever had sex. She replied she had. Once inside the house, he persuaded the girl to pose topless, offered her a glass of champagne, gave her a third of a Mandrax tablet and had the rest himself after confirming she'd had quaaludes before, and went through a seduction routine in the jacuzzi and on the couch. Samantha later said she resisted all through. After oral sex, he initiated intercourse, stopping to ask if Samantha was on the pill. When she told him she wasn't, he got worried about a possible pregnancy, withdrew, and asked if he could penetrate her anally. In Samantha's account, he then did so without waiting for her assent.
At that point, the couple was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Anjelica Huston, Nicholson's girlfriend, actress daughter of the great film director John Huston, and usual occupant of the room. Polanski spoke to her through a crack in the door before returning to the bed, instructing Gailey, who had put some clothes on, to strip once more, penetrated her again and quickly climaxed. After he was done, according to Gailey, he told her to keep the whole thing a secret. As she was leaving, she met Huston in a common area of the house and spoke to her briefly. Huston later described Samantha as 'sullen', saying, further that she, "appeared to be one of those kind of little chicks between — could be any age up to 25. She did not look like a 13-year-old scared little thing.”
That evening, Samantha told her 17 year old boyfriend what had happened and was overheard by her sister, who told their mother, who told the police. Polanski was arrested and the LA media went into a frenzy. Today, the testimony of a woman claiming to have been raped tends to be taken at face value, but back in 1977 Polanski's version of events would have been given the same weight as Samantha's. Since there was nothing to the case apart from two competing descriptions of the event, no evidence of injury or violence, no attempt to shout for help or flee when a third person appeared, prosecutors and the defense arrived at a plea bargain in which Polanski would plead guilty to statutory rape (consensual sex with a minor), serve some time in jail and go through a psychiatric evaluation, in return for graver charges being dropped. The judge in the case was cognisant of the deal and, according to the defense, gave his consent. Later, though, the media's pressure began to tell on him and he hinted he would administer a tough sentence beyond what the prosecution was demanding.
Polanski, out on bail after a few weeks in prison, was spooked by this change in attitude, which the defense interpreted as a judge reneging on a deal agreed by all parties. He jumped bail, flew to France, and has never returned to the United States. A warrant for his arrest has been out for over three decades, and it finally bore fruit with his detention while on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award in Zurich. He owns a home in Switzerland and has been to the country dozens of times in the past three decades.
To many in the film fraternity, the timing of the arrest seemed perverse. Polanski is now 76, married, and has two children. Samatha Gailey, now Geimer, is married with three children, and has repeatedly said she has forgiven the director and wants the case closed. She did sue him in a civil action and settled for an undisclosed amount. It may be that asking for the closure of the case was part of the settlement.
What is a little surprising is the outrage that has followed the arrest. Politicians who at first strongly defended Polanski have backtracked in the face of public anger. In Polanski's native Poland, where he is a hero, three in four citizens support the arrest and want him tried and possibly jailed. The 150 artists and film-makers who signed a petition demanding Polanski's release have been denounced as elitists without a moral compass. The chorus is: why should a man escape justice just because he has made good films?
Some typical responses from commentators and members of the public can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.

"Roman Polanski raped a child. Let’s just start right there."

"The organisation blasted Polanski's supporters 'who apparently believe that drugging and raping a 13-year-old child is not a serious crime'."

"Polanski is a pedophile and a fugitive."

"Like many in Hollywood and throughout the rest of the entertainment world, novelist Robert Harris has raced to the defense of child-rapist and international fugitive Roman Polanski, his pal and creative collaborator."

"...this case has nothing to do with Mr. Polanski’s work or his age. It is about an adult preying on a child."

Two things strike me as important in this excoriation. First, that it emerges in equal measure from the Left and Right. The New York Times, HuffingtonPost and The Guardian are united in condemning Polanski alongside the Daily Telegraph, The Sun and The Washington Times.
Secondly, commentator after commentator uses the word 'child' to describe Samantha Gailey. What do these two facts tell us?
Roman Polanski slept with Samantha Gailey during the final days of the sexual revolution. Ronald Reagan, the Moral Majority, Ayatollah Khomeini and AIDS were looming close, though nobody could have known it then. Before the revolution, virtually every act that did not fall within the bounds of marital, procreative sex was considered debased. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, you name it, it was disapproved of and frequently proscribed. Abortion was illegal in most nations, as was pornography. The birth control pill had not been invented (and was years from making the shift from wonder drug providing women sexual freedom to pharmacological conspiracy hatched by profit-obsessed multinationals targetting females).
The cultural advances of the sixties and seventies resulted in the legalisation of a range of sexual activities, but one kind was left out of the wave of liberalisation: sex between adults and minors. Condemnation of this unites liberals and conservatives. In fact, with few other outlets for their store of moral outrage, liberals often outdo conservatives in their response to cases like that of Polanski and Gailey. The fear and hatred of sex offenders is not without good cause. People such as these damage the lives of thousands of children every year, often beyond repair.
That is why the second fact I pointed to, namely the repeated use of 'child' to describe Samantha Gailey, is relevant. There are two very distinct meanings to the word 'child'. The legal definition of a child is any human below the age of 18. Traditional usage, however, refers to a boy or girl under the age of puberty. It's a crucial variation, because the period between the time that somebody stops being a child in the customary sense and the moment when s/he stops being a child in the legal sense can be very great.
The onset of puberty has traditionally been considered a crucial marker in the development of an individual. In modern legal terms however, this very significant milestone is entirely meaningless. Instead a line is drawn at age 18 after which individuals are presumed to be mature enough to make a host of decisions for themselves. It is a convenient legal fiction, even a necessary one, but a fiction nonetheless, because we all know that very little changes between the age of 17 1/2 and 18 1/2.
Humans are built to change radically not at 18 but at puberty. After that point we are sexually mature and, in most traditional societies, it is the moment when individuals can expect to commence their sexual lives. The problem is that modern society's sophistication makes it impossible for thirteen or fourteen-year-olds to get married, settle down and be able to earn a living. The expansion of the gap between the age of sexual maturity and the age of financial security delays the first sexual experience of men and women. Your great-great-great grandmother and father almost certainly had sex at a much earlier age than you did.
In countries that went through the revolution of the sixties, sexual initiation is no longer tied to marriage; teens are relatively free to experiment. In conservative societies like India, however, many educated urban women and men have to wait till ridiculously late before they first have sex. This is an aberration, and an unfortunate one, compensated for slightly by the fact that our longer life expectancy means the total number of fucks an average individual can expect in his or her lifetime is the same as or higher than it was five hundred years ago.
Let me return to my assertion that humans are built to have sex as teenagers. If one grants a girl or boy the right to have sex, should that right not extend to having sex with adults, should they so please? What is so heinous about it? It is not allowed purely for legal reasons, because it will often happen that the girl or boy will be taken advantage of. To prevent the misuse of such permissions, minors are allowed to have sex with minors, but if they choose to have sex with an adult, the adult stands to be punished. Again, this might be the best legal way to get around the issue of the use of power by adults on minors, but the idea of a 13 year old boy having sex with a fifty year old man or woman, or a thirteen year old girl having sex with a fifty year old man or woman does not in and off itself appall me.
Samantha Gailey was sexually mature and had had intercourse before she met Roman Polanski. She was not a child in the traditional sense, and Polanski's attempted seduction of her, which perhaps ended up being rape, does not make him a paedophile. He was a man who liked teenage girls, a tendency he continued to exhibit after 1977, in his relationships with Nastassja Kinski and Emmanuelle Seigner. Many mature men are attracted to teenage girls, and many teenage girls attracted to mature men. In the case of Polanski and Gailey, it appears the attraction was one way. The rhetoric and the certitude of those appalled by what Polanski did, however, originates not in the cloudy and complicated details of the case, but in the fact that he committed what was, back in 1977, merely one among a host of proscribed sexual acts, but is now western culture's last taboo, an act which generates so much disgust that commentators reflexively employ terms like 'child' and 'paedophile' even in cases where they do not fit.


One of the unfortunate side-effects of the last taboo has been the growing censorship of images that use nude children or teens. I've just read news of a photograph of Brooke Shields being taken down from the Tate Modern because it shows the 10 year old Shields naked and heavily made up. Catalogues for the show are being pulped after the Tate was advised that criminal proceedings might follow. How long before Caravaggio's wonderful, manifestly erotic Cupid is removed from the Berlin museum where it hangs?

Update, October 3, 2009: This article in today's New York Times ties in with what I've written. It quotes from the probation report of Kenneth Fare, in which the officer concludes there was no premeditation to the crime, and some indication that "the victim was not only physically mature, but willing". Whoopi Goldberg suggested the incident "wasn't rape-rape", only to face a barrage of absolutists saying "rape is rape, period". That's an argument I find utterly ridiculous. Of course there are degrees to rape just as there are degrees to everything, including homicide.