August 16, 2009

Thrill Value

“Whether and under what conditions a thing is useful to me, whether and under what conditions it is a good, whether and under what conditions it is an economic good, whether and under what conditions it possesses value for me and how large the measure of this value is for me, whether and under what conditions an economic exchange of goods will take place between two economizing individuals, and the limits within which a price can be established if an exchange does occur—these and many other matters are fully as independent of my will as any law of chemistry is of the will of the practicing chemist. […] For economic theory is concerned, not with practical rules for economic activity, but with the conditions under which men engage in provident activity directed to the satisfaction of their needs.”(1)

Without engaging the endless, age-old debate concerning subjective values, it recently became remarkably evident to me that the relative exchange value of art is directly proportional to one’s investment of time. That this insight came to me while standing on-line for a “thrill ride” in Hersheypark is significant for the fact that I began to reflect on the actual amount of time that I would “own” the thrill that I had “purchased.” As Menger says, both the use value and the exchange value of this thrill that I “needed” to experience were “independent of my will.” However, what struck me as unique about the experience was its relationship to art.

The thrill of a rollercoaster ride is comparable to the accessible and repeatable experience one has with art, whether through the contemplative viewing of an object, or interaction with an installation, or watching a performance. The intangibility of the “art” itself is always exterior to the object, installation or performance as the thrill value of art is momentary and ephemeral.

The thrill is repeatable because each time you stand in front of a painting you can again access the experience.(2) The thrill of a rollercoaster is also repeatable, of course, and another point of comparison can be drawn to the “economic activity” of art collecting. If time is money, then art collectors do indeed exchange their time for art, not only as a quantifiable amount of money traded for the art but time as well (hopefully) invested in learning about the art they decide to buy.

The investment of time one stands on line to access that rollercoaster thrill is also an “economic activity” and it may certainly be noteworthy that it is disproportional to the measurable moment of that thrill.(3) Amusement park planners shrewdly separate the money exchange for park entrance ostensibly to distract one from comparing time invested with actual thrill value.

On a final note, it has been said that the thrills offered up by rollercoasters approach the sublime in that we know that this experience is of no physical danger to us. This is why people flock to horror films. Notwithstanding the engineering expertise and safety design of amusement park “thrill rides,” there is the very real danger that one might die during the experience. Far from being a sublime experience then, like looking at the vast, dark night sky studded with millions of stars, the thrill of a rollercoaster ride is equivalent to a simple yet measurable economic exchange. Like art, it is a provident activity that gives temporary respite from mortality as we seek the thrill value to access experiences outside of our quotidian lives.

Image: Thrill seekers ride through one of several inverted loops of "Fahrenheit" in Hersheypark, PA; photograph © copyright 2009 by MCB.

1. Menger, Carl. “Principles of Economics”, (Dingwall, J., Hoselitz, B.F., trans.), New York, 1950, 50.

2. Performance art and time-based works escape these criteria somewhat as they are not “objects” per se; are not static.

3. Patrons at Hersheypark sometimes wait 1 hour and 30 minutes to ride the “Fahrenheit” rollercoaster which runs about 45 seconds.