First off, be warned – below be spoilers.
This week’s PGWCC, “First Name Basis,” has caused a bit of controversy amongst its small audience. If you’ve gotten as far as solving the grids, I’m sure you know I’m talking about 1-across in minipuzzle number 6, which is clued as “Word I would never, ever put in a crossword if it weren’t in service of a meta theme (and even then not without censoring it, as here).” I won’t reprint the answer here – again if you solved the puzzles, you know what it was, and if you’re reading this, it may well be because seeing that word in a grid pissed you off; I’m not here to try to piss you off more. Suffice to say it was six letters, its third letter was the G of (also thematic) 3-down GIRL, and its second square was where I censored it, opting to make 2-down the Bowie song *MAN instead of the one-named model (or basketball player Shumpert) IMAN.
A few solvers have messaged me privately, or commented on the xword-muggles forum, to express their distaste with this choice. More than one has pointed out that surely, there was a way to execute this metapuzzle theme without using such an ugly entry.
Said theme was famous artworks, represented in each grid by entries placed so as to evoke the images in the artworks they represented. So for example, minipuzzle number 7 represented the iconic painting American Gothic by placing a WOMAN and a FARMER on either side of a PITCHFORK, all within an outer black frame. From that minipuzzle you were to extract a G by putting yourself on a “first name basis” with the artist, Grant Wood.
The controversial minipuzzle number 6 supplied the letter N to the final answer by representing Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With. Again, because this is a response to people’s anger at my use of an offensive term that appears in the painting itself, I won’t depict the painting in this space. You can see the painting, and read more about it, here and here, and in many other places. It depicts 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first student to integrate New Orleans public schools, walking to school under the protection of four faceless U.S. Marshals. Behind her is a wall bearing some reminders of the abuse she endured on those walks to school, including a graffito of the word under discussion.
Not everyone thinks Problem is a great work of art, but critics agree pretty universally on two things: it is a major artistic icon of the Civil Rights era; and, its message uses uncomfortable language/imagery to harshly condemn racism both institutional and personal.
As a side note, there are it turns out very few famous artists whose first name start with N, and I have not found any work by Nicolas Poussin, nor any other work by Rockwell, that lends itself particularly well to the depict-it-in-a-small-crossword-grid treatment. But I’m sure if I’d looked hard enough I could have found some other way to get the N, or I could have found a different meta answer, or switched to last names, or something.
So I’m not trying to say “I had no other choice” – I obviously had other choices, including just scrapping the whole idea! I made this choice anticipating that it would probably make some people uncomfortable. I am no art scholar but I feel certain that Rockwell had similar expectations, and that he was deliberately trying to jar the viewer to provoke thought.
One criticism I have seen of the original painting is the idea that the scene is overdramatized; that by prominently including what many would consider the ugliest, most hateful word in the English language, Rockwell was overreaching for shock value. I wasn’t sure what I thought of that criticism until I watched the video embedded in this piece (a harsh critique of a recent political cartoon that appropriated Rockwell’s work to make a very idiotic analogy), in which it becomes clear to me that, no, Rockwell’s use of the word was a perfectly accurate portrayal of the attitudes of a horribly racist mob that really existed and that really did, in real life, fling that word at little Ruby Bridges openly and proudly day after day after day.
Another criticism of the original work itself, one that I imagine would be more likely to occur to a critic in 2019 than in 1964, is that Rockwell, a white guy, should have simply viewed that particular word as off limits no matter what message he was trying to convey with it. That criticism can certainly be extended to me, also a white guy. I’m sympathetic to this point of view but I don’t ultimately agree with it. To me, the painting’s title is significant here: racism is not just a problem that racists and people of color live with, and indeed I don’t think either of those constituencies is the primary intended audience.
I’ve gone on long enough. My intent here is not to convince anyone who’s upset by the puzzle that they shouldn’t be or that I made the right choice; only to convey that it wasn’t a choice I made blithely or flippantly or thoughtlessly, and that it certainly didn’t come from a place of being comfortable with the utterance of that word at 1-across.
I’ll close by urging you to take five or so minutes to watch the video mentioned a few paragraphs above, which has nothing to do with these questions of artistic or cruciverbal propriety but is all about a remarkably brave and gracious little girl. If nothing else, publishing this crossword and responding to the reactions it provoked has led me to learn an important story from American history that I previously knew little about.
Thanks for reading and solving, and I hope you’ll return for more puzzles.