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Frankly Absurd: Satirized American Idealism in Hot Dog Bridge

by Sean Sabye

[DOWNLOAD OF THIS IMAGE IS PROHIBITED.] Russell T. Gordon, American, 1936-2013, Hot Dog Bridge, 1974, color lithograph, image: 12 3/16 x 15 3/8 in. (31 x 39 cm), sheet: 17 x 19 3/8 in. (43.2 x 49.2 cm). Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gift of Dr. Christopher A. Graf and Janet Graf, his wife, 74.28.12. ©Estate of Russell T. Gordon.

Russell T. Gordon’s color lithograph entitled Hot Dog Bridge (figure 1) figures a monumental hot dog as a structure spanning two rust-colored rock formations, framed by a perfectly arched, almost tangible rainbow. The background of the image is filled with a bright blue sky, dotted with cotton candy clouds shaped by the negative space of the print. Russell mobilizes the ironic idealism of the scene, the lithographic nature of the piece, and the keystone role of the hot dog bridge to comment on the absurdity of the values we come to imbue with importance in America, specifically in relation to capitalism and accessible democracy.

The vibrancy of the blue sky and rainbow, as well as the dental whiteness of the clouds, calls to mind the utopian qualities of advertising and, more generally, media in post-war 1950s America. Within the context of this period, the hot dog evokes the industrialization of consumer products, food included, that flourished then (and continues to flourish today). The machine of capitalism rewards manufacturers who can perpetually churn out consistent iterations of the same product. Though the nutritional quality of the hot dog remains questionable at best, its consistency is undeniable. As a lithograph, the piece’s replicability mirrors the replicability of the hot dog, remarking on how the greed of capitalism may come to infect a sphere such as art with the same mechanization it applies to mass-produced food.

Comprised of meat trimmings, hot dogs make use of meat that would otherwise be discarded once choice cuts of chicken, beef, or pork are gathered and sold. Their “leftover” status means they can be purchased cheaply, making them a popular choice for efficiently feeding large groups of people. The highest and lowest socio-economic classes in the United States consume the hot dog, saturating its image with a lack of discrimination and a wealth of democracy. The hot dog’s association with celebrations of American culture and independence, whether that be baseball games or July Fourth barbeques, further adds to its symbolic relationship with uniquely American ideals. Forming the hot dog into this essential structure, Gordon exposes the historical idolization of the tenets of American democracy. Our nation claims to apply its statutes to all its citizens equally. Gordon, a Black man who experienced America before, during, and after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, knew this widely disseminated “fact” was (and still is) a systematic deception on some level. An unhealthy level of patriotism, of romanticizing the aspects of American democracy that make it special, teaches the socially and economically privileged to turn a blind eye to the negative features of our nation that have never leaked into their daily awareness of “the American dream.” To Gordon, putting a hot dog on this stony pedestal is as ridiculous as holding American democracy as an untouchable paragon.

Gordon’s Hot Dog Bridge plays with our contextual understanding of food symbolism to satirize the sanctity with which emblems of American democracy and capitalism are popularly portrayed. America’s unhealthy obsession with economic efficiency and apotheosized vision of its own governing principles endanger the singularity of artistic creation and the ensured equality of its inhabitants. Maintaining a healthy skepticism surrounding the remarkable characteristics of the United States leaves room for critique and improvement of the systems we must mutually exist within. The symbolic role of the bridge, a structure offering access to previously unreachable space, requires further analysis, specifically how it could be interpreted through the lens of American immigration policy.


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