The Real NFT Question: Can Data Be Art?

NFTs will have their Minneapolis moment at VeeCon in May
The internet-famous Nyan Cat in a gilded frame
The internet-famous Nyan Cat in a gilded frame

Adobe/Mininyx Doodle/iamtui7

Ever eager to track the shifting sands of contemporary culture reflected in our language, Collins Dictionary recently bestowed 2021 word-of-the-year status on “NFT.” While awareness of the non-fungible token concept has been on the rise, many of us are still hard-pressed to describe what they actually are.

Essentially, an NFT is a unique digital certificate of ownership of something that exists in the non-digital world. It can also be a one-of-a-kind digital “object,” including art and video. The NFT lives in blockchain, which is copied on decentralized computer networks around the world and isn’t subject to top-down control.

If that sounds like cryptocurrency—say, Bitcoin—it’s because the primary mode of financial transaction for NFTs is in cryptocurrency. What sorts of things are changing hands? Unique drawings and images are bought and sold as NFTs, as well as digital “real estate” in virtual worlds. (If you have enough crypto, you can “live” next to Snoop Dogg’s “house.”) Macy’s even got in on the action last Thanksgiving, selling off virtual parade floats as NFTs.

BORED APE #4873 is part of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a series of digital collectibles that are some of the most expensive NFTs.
BORED APE #4873 is part of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a series of digital collectibles that are some of the most expensive NFTs.


“Blockchain technology is going to change the game for businesses and owners of intellectual property,” says communications consultant Maha Abouelenein, who works in Minnesota and Dubai (when operating in the material world). “And artists are getting their day in the sun, with the opportunity to add an extra layer of value to their art.”

NFTs are poised to set off a historic level of disruption in the art world. It’s been just a bit more than a century since Marcel Duchamp presented an iconic porcelain urinal as high art, after all. And more recently, Andy Warhol toyed with authenticity and reproduction at his Factory as a commentary on consumer culture (or maybe he was just messing around, it’s hard to say).

Art dealers and gallery curators have their ears perked up. Big-timers such as artist Damien Hirst are producing works as NFTs, which indicates the power balance may be shifting between big institutions and creators who have the savvy to cash in on their own. The Swiss-born artist Urs Fischer, for instance, last year auctioned off an NFT of an animated cigarette lighter passing through a brown egg and called it CHAOS #1 Human. The opening bid was $1,000, but it eventually fetched nearly a hundred times that.

Gary Vaynerchuk
Gary Vaynerchuk


The Twin Cities are going to be at the epicenter of NFT culture with VeeCon, the world’s first conference with an NFT as the cost of admission, scheduled to take place May 19-22 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The brainchild of entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, it’s about education and networking around all things NFT, blockchain, and concepts such as the Metaverse and the Web 3.0. The long list of speakers and panelists includes artists, entrepreneurs, and figures from tech and entertainment, including YouTuber Logan Paul, producer and actress Mila Kunis, and spiritual advocate Deepak Chopra, along with business CEOs and creatives.

It’s difficult for some outside of NFT circles to fully comprehend the value and potential of this technology. I just watched CHAOS #1 Human on my laptop, for instance, and my real-world wallet emerged unscathed. Some are pointing to such irrational bubbles as the 17th-century craze that wildly overvalued tulip bulbs. Others point to the environmental consequences of the computing power required by blockchain.

But a major part of the story of art itself has always been patronage, price, and production. The difference in financial value between a painting that sells for a million dollars and an NFT that does the same is nonexistent. And looking to realms such as music, where artists’ revenue streams have been nearly obliterated by commercial streaming services, suggests some measure of revolution might be in order.

“This is all about new artists and ways to own their work,” Abouelenein says. “Back in the day, it was all about our parents buying land and acquiring things to put in their garages. This is the time for young people to say, ‘This is our thing.’ We got active in NFTs and crypto and digital wallets early, and this is our era.”

If we’re all going to end up in the Metaverse, at least we know it will be well-decorated.

‘It All Clicks’

The Twin Cities-based Mitch Putnam has long zeroed in on the intersection between the art world and the commercial space of collectibles. He’s a co-founder of the online pop collectible shop Mondo and has entered the entrepreneurial space of NFTs as a partner in 0x420, which focuses on facilitating artists’ entry into the digital sphere.

That’s not to say it’s been easy.

“It can be really hard to convert any given artist to NFTs,” Putnam says. “It can be a big onboarding process.”

Many of the hurdles are technical, particularly for those more accustomed to traditional mediums. Finding the right tech interface is part of the challenge. (For his part, Putnam has worked with the VeVe app, which specializes in licensed digital collectibles.) But the rewards come with a paradigm shift, framing art collection as an enterprise and passion.

“The thing for me was not the cryptocurrency or the money part,” Putnam says. “It’s being able to work with artists to do something they couldn’t with physical art, such as creating art that changes over time.”

Art that exists in the digital sphere has a capacity for invention that is unique to the medium. The first project Putnam worked on was The Visitors, which involved more than 10,000 pieces of original digital art that were automatically generated from hand drawings by artist Mike Mitchell. Those who buy “Visitor” NFTs also receive access to a range of online perks on a changing timetable.

Putnam points out that there is an inherently social aspect to collecting NFTs that can be lacking in traditional art collecting.

“If you buy art, it’s fairly hard to show it off,” he adds. “But with NFTs, your wallet is completely public. Anyone can go see your collection and look and get an idea of who you are as an art collector. A lot of the reason we buy collectibles is to share them with other people.”

Access, supply, and demand are key concepts in the world of NFTs. Putnam is working on a new project in which buyers will have opportunities to “burn” their NFT over the course of a year and exchange it for a signed fine art print. What will be interesting is to learn how many collectors prefer to hold onto their digital property or opt for something tangible.

“This is a fully immersive hobby for people,” Putnam says. “You can move in and out of artists’ work. You can be trading art all day. A lot of people who came from art collecting find that this presses all the same buttons—but it’s easier, with no shipping or eBay.”

It adds up to an immersive digital community, commercial sphere, and mode of expression. It’s materialized in just the last year but is attracting pioneers, artists, and speculators. Today’s neophyte might be tomorrow’s investor.

“There’s a challenge to get people into it,” Putnam says about introducing NFTs to the uninitiated. “But once they are, it all clicks.”

For a lineup of keynote speakers, plus other details about the VeeCon 2022 event, click here.

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.