Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: A middle-aged man becomes wedged in a cat door when he loses his house keys and tries to wriggle his way inside his home through the pet's entrance. His cries for help attract a gang of students who pull down his pants, paint his derriere blue, stick a daffodil in it, then erect a sign declaring the spectacle to be an example of street art. The man remains stuck in the cat door for two days while unquestioning passersby ignore his pleas for assistance and throw coins at him instead.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1995]
This fanciful tale appears to have originated with The Big Issue, a British magazine sold by the homeless. It was quickly spread over the Internet, by the print media, and on radio.
A greatly embellished version appeared in December 1995 in Britain's Private Eye. Naming the Vancouver Sun as its source, the Private Eye account contained numerous additional quotes from the non-existent Burpus ("In retrospect, I admit it was unwise to try to gain access to my house via the cat flap," Gunther Burpus admitted to reporters in Bremen, Germany. "I suppose that the reason they're called cat flaps rather than human flaps is because they're too small for people, and perhaps I should have realised that"), and the ending was thus further embroidered:
["Gunther Burpus," as quoted in Private Eye,In January 1996 American newspaper accounts began giving Der Spiegel as the source of the story, but, when contacted, Der Spiegel revealed it had never heard of Gunther Burpus or run an article about him.
"In fact, I only got free after two days because a dog started licking my private parts and an old woman complained to the police. They came and cut me out, but arrested me as soon as I was freed. Luckily, they've now dropped the charges, and I collected over
The image of an immobilized man made sport of by pranksters who place a daffodil in his rear end was around nearly forty years before the Gunther Burpus tale, however:
[Reader's Digest, 1958]In a broad sense, this legend plays upon our fear of some day requiring assistance from strangers yet being rebuffed or ignored. Urban society is portrayed as a mass of faceless people who both don't know each other and don't want to get involved, and it's this chilling lack of community
The first part of this I know is true; perhaps the rest could never be properly checked. But when I was a Red Cross hospital worker on Guadalcanal during World
One hour later the nurse, making her rounds, froze in consternation on the officer's doorstep. "Admiral!" she gasped. "What — what happened?"
"Taking my temperature," the admiral growled. "Anything unusual about taking an admiral's temperature?"
"N-no, sir," the startled nurse managed to reply, "but, Admiral — with a daffodil?
More specifically, this legend points an accusing finger at the unquestioning acceptance of any ludicrosity as art, provided there's a sign identifying it as such. Key to the Burpus tale is the notion that a man stuck in a cat door and screaming to be rescued could be mistaken for anything other than a person in desperate need of help.
As ridiculous as Burpus himself may appear in this tale — bare-bottomed, painted, daffodil'd, and stuck in a cat door — the passersby are shown to be far more foolish. This legend is "The Emperor's New Clothes" with a modern art twist: though not all art is good, it has become unfashionable to give voice to that opinion, let alone question the value any particular work. The tale is also a broad-stroke allegory in which those pitching coins at what they believe is art represent both foolhardy art collectors with more money than sense and governments so determined to buy culture for their countries they end up underwriting the sometimes highly-questionable efforts of emerging "artists".
Barbara "art shell game" Mikkelson
Sightings: Look for the "daffodil used as a thermometer" gag in the 1958 film, Carry On Nurse:
Last updated: 6 June 2007
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