‘Your passion is an illusion,” “The arts are a hobby, not a profession,” and “If you’re such a good artist why haven’t you shown in NYC?” These are just a few phrases from the flurry of (real life) dismissals, insults, and assorted denigrations listed in one of the works on view in “Value Added: Artists’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Worth,” the College of New Jersey Art Gallery’s newest exhibition. The exhibition is on view through Thursday, April 18, and features works by 20 contemporary artists, each of whom offers a visual commentary on the concept of “worth.”

The worth of art — a quality neither objective nor singular — perennially eludes definition. When one is offered, revisions and reevaluations are soon to follow. In a sense, this resistance to categorization makes art the perfect lens through which to examine the meaning of worth. The simplicity of a single word, “worth,” belies its complexities and contradictions. Accordingly, the forms that it assumes in “Value Added” are many, expressed in photography, print, video, oil painting, metal, and, yes, even paper receipts. The exhibition includes works that extend from amusing parodies of arbitrary value to sobering reflections on the human cost of luxury. These pieces also consider the concept of worth from a variety of perspectives, from the environmental to the existential.

This marks the curatorial debut for “Value Added” curator Betsy Alwin, a Brooklyn-based sculptor who is also an adjunct professor of fine art at TCNJ. As an artist, Alwin, who grew up in Minnesota and received a master’s of fine arts at Illinois State University, explores a variety of materials and techniques, interweaving traditional and contemporary methods. She is especially interested in works that invite viewer interaction, either real or imagined.

Alwin explained that the concept for “Value Added” was shaped in a moment of crisis, the United States’ financial collapse in 2008. As an artist, Alwin had a unique perspective on the economic fragility that beset the nation. Moreover, she was aware of how art was an entity lacking a fixed, quantitative value. As Alwin put it, she was eager to investigate “the concept of the value of artwork that exists beyond that which is assigned by the market.”

Several of the works on view retain Alwin’s original interest in the relationship between “worth” and art. One of these is Peter Drissen’s “List of Loan Officer’s Comments,” from which the quotations used at the start of the article are a sampling. The work is a simple piece of printed paper listing a barrage of derogatory comments that the artist received over the course of two months. Deceptively uncomplicated, Drissen’s print quietly establishes a dialogue between the artist and interpretations of art motivated purely by monetary concerns. In short, Drissen presents an allegory of art as it is viewed and valued by pure finance.

Another work that takes on art’s intrinsic value is “Kunsmarkt TV” by Christian Jankowski. Jankowski’s video art imports priceless art into an imitation of the Home Shopping Network, an embodiment of anonymous consumerism. The concept is amusingly absurd, but there is a bit of tragedy in the scene as television presenters hawk singular artworks to the camera. In fusing the Home Shopping Network — which presumably flourishes in part because its wares can be mass produced — with art, an entity that generally gleans its value from being completely original, we are asked to consider how these opposites have something in common: their worth is arbitrary. Though they work in opposition, the logic of how we define worth as consumers and the logic of assigning art a value are both mysterious processes.

Other artworks focus on monetary currency — literally. Melissa Brown’s “Zero Dollar” is a dollar bill that extends over seven feet in length. Despite its imposing size, the literal value of Brown’s dollar is nothing. Brown’s “zero dollar-bill” evacuates the content from the usual designs of currency while remembering visual conventions. The back of the bill bears a symbol of the ouroboros, or snake consuming its own tail.

Another perspective taking literal currency for inspiration comes in Christina Kelly’s “Pay Dirt.” As Alwin notes, Kelly’s work is part of an ongoing project that consigns shredded U.S. Treasury currency to the compost heap. Though the currency — which is both a symbol and an embodiment of worth — is literally turned to dirt, it actually gains value in the process: it becomes the soil that supports plant life.

Sometimes artists in “Value Added” force us to question values by revealing how our seemingly impersonal, economic choices that are guided by monetary worth can not only compromise our humanity but can even force us to devalue it entirely. “Serra Pelada” by Sebastiao Salgado is a photograph of the backs of a legion of nameless laborers, each hoisting a pack at the shoulders as they mount rickety stairs and exit a gold mine in Brazil. The possibilities of the precious metal they might discover seem petty in relation to the implied suffering symbolized by the mass of people as they struggle upwards to hidden homes.

“North Las Vegas,” a mixture of computer graphics and inkjet print, is artist Tim Portlock’s way of asking whether the worth we see is greater than the worth that lacks form. Portlock places the tomb-like foundations of a group of unbuilt homes in the foreground. Behind it is a row of residences already finished. The horizon is punctuated by elaborate architectural elements — spires and a fake Eiffel Tower. The sky seems to be backlit by the eternal glow, as if the Las Vegas strip were lending the lighting for sunset. These three architectural moments — each more elaborate than the last — encourage a shift in traditional ideas of worth. While the promise embodied by houses to be built appears oddly funereal and the homes that have been built seem mundane, the phony worth symbolized by Las Vegas overcomes all. Paradoxically, what appears most valuable is also what has the least investment in the reality we all must inhabit.

The matter of “real” worth assumes a unique form in Esperanza Mayobre’s “Legitimate Dust of Santa Esperanza.” In essence, the artist (“Santa Esperanza”) packages herself, pretending to sell the dust from her body, as if it were the relic from a saint. The faux “dust” supposedly accelerates undocumented immigrants’ progress to citizenship. More than a clever conceit or a social commentary, Mayobre’s work interrogates something at the very heart of worth: is it intrinsic and intangible — like a saint’s blessing — or is it determined by an elaborate hidden machinery of convention, demand, and self-deluding desire?

As consumers, every interaction forces us to make an invisible calculation about whether an object or a service is “worth it.” Though this calculation is done unawares — practically invisible — it nonetheless governs the dozens of tiny daily choices we all make, colors our judgment, and even, to a certain extent, structures our lives. “Value Added” encourages a reconsideration of worth as it compares objects, such as gold, possessing only the value we attach to them, with entities such as human life, which supposedly has worth woven into its very essence.

In the acknowledgments prefacing the catalog of “Value Added,” TCNJ Art Gallery Director Emily Croll recalled a recent guest lecture by scholar Michael Dyson. There, Dyson reminded the audience that one of the goals of education is not to establish value but to challenge it. Yet education does not have to stop at the lecture hall. “Value Added” might encourage students to reconsider what “worth” really means; it also poses that question to a larger audience, the public — student status optional.

Value Added: Artists’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Worth, College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Art & Interactive Multimedia Building, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. On view through Thursday, April 18. Oopen Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 3 p.m. Free. 609-771-2633 or www.tcnj.edu/artgallery.

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