Special Commentary by CoinWeek Editor Charles Morgan….
2015 marks the 23rd year of the Life Ball, a fundraising event held each year in Vienna, Austria. Proceeds from the event fund AIDS education and awareness programs. Combining exclusive formal dinner events, couture designer fashion shows, live music and art, the Life Ball has become one of the high points of the Viennese social calendar and is one of the premier AIDS charities in the world.
This year, event organizers asked Austrian singer Conchita Wurst to star in the event’s Poster campaign. Posters featuring Wurst – in the style of Gustaf Klimt – were prominently featured on the event grounds and the original work was auctioned off. In addition to the poster, the Life Ball partnered with the Austrian Mint to produce gold-plated .999 fine silver medals of Wurst as Klimt’s “Golden Adele”.
For those unfamiliar with Wurst, know that the Austrian singer became a sensation throughout Europe last year by finishing first in the highly-rated 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. She was also a huge hit online as well. The video of her winning performance of “Rise Like a Phoenix” garnered more than 11 million views on YouTube. The official “music video” of the song received more than 21 million views. Still, the ratios of dislikes to likes for these videos are shockingly high for such a popular musician.
The primary reason for this might be the fact that Wurst is a drag queen. However, there may be an even more complex explanation – one that involves international politics and reveals the grim reality of a growing cultural chasm between Eastern and Western Europe.
But before we get into that, consider the motif of the photograph and the Austrian Mint medal.
The Art of Gustaf Klimt is most closely tied to the Vienna Secession, an Austrian intellectual-architectural movement that developed in the late 19th century and lasted through the outbreak of World War I. It’s epoch ran from 1897 to 1905.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the birth of the Vienna Secession drew some of its contemporary inspiration from a little-known architectural movement underway to the north in Scotland. The Glasgow School, as it would become known, was the result of a shift towards modernism and simplicity in design by architect Charles Renee Mackintosh. Mackintosh pushed against the needless formality of the period’s conservative architectural schools, led by France’s École des Beaux-Arts. Mackintosh embraced new methods of production and new materials to create an original organic style.
On the European continent, a similar mood developed among a growing number of rising architects, artists, and designers. In liberal Austria, a cutting-edge movement developed, one that formally rejected the classic style and sought to replace it with a new style that blended elements of nature, sensuality, and high intellectualism. It was called by its practitioners the Vienna Secession. The Vienna Secession, led by Otto Wagner, Joseph Olbrich, and Josef Hoffman was uniquely Austrian, but its implications were felt far beyond the Alpine country’s borders.
Unlike most architectural movements, the Secession went far beyond its most famous built works (the Palais Stoclet, the Secession Building, the Ernst Ludwig House, and Vienna Post Office Savings Bank). Instead, it strove for a deeper influence on Austrian culture at large, through new forms of prose, poetry, and art. The magazine Ver Sacrum (translation: “The Sacred Spring”) became the movement’s mouthpiece and artist Gustaf Klimt, whose sensual style can best be described as “pan-erotic”, became the magazine’s greatest artist.
In 2015, “Ver Sacrum” was reborn as the Life Ball’s official motto.
In a press release, event organizer Gary Kezler explained the use of the term, and the charity’s affinity towards the Secession movement, saying, “Breaking out of old ways and advancing one’s own individuality and self-determination; this was the core idea of the Viennese Secessionists. The values of the avant-garde movement thus form a wonderful metaphor for the Life Ball, which has fought from its inception both for active steps towards health and for a conscious confrontation with and the overcoming of social barriers, taboos and stigmas” (emphasis mine).
Choosing Conchita Wurst to be the charity’s featured spokesperson plays well into these stated objectives. It does so by shining a klieg light on Austria’s (and Western Europe’s) growing acceptance of LGBTQ identities, while at the same time it reveals–through the frankness and openness of online communication–the sustained, callous, and bigoted pushback that sexual minorities experience on a daily basis.
In other words, the choice is clearly political.
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In a press release, event organizers said of the Life Ball that the re-appropriation of Klimt was not meant to shock but was instead meant to “communicate the important message” of the event.
Interestingly, the elevation of what would to previous generations have been a character from a carnival sideshow – the Bearded Lady – to that of a figure of national pride and status illuminates the shifting paradigm in societal attitudes towards non-normative sexual lifestyles in Austria and other liberalized countries. No clearer example of this change in attitude can be seen than in the May 22, 2015 referendum in Ireland to amend that country’s constitution to permit same sex marriage. The measure passed with overwhelming public support.
Contrast that to LGBTQ rights in Russia and other Eastern European countries. In Russia, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, but despite this a spate of regional laws has been introduced in the Russian Federation to criminalize “homosexual propaganda”. Similar initiatives to combat homosexual rights have been introduced in conservative regions of the United States (“Don’t Say Gay“, anyone?); many of these laws have been challenged and overturned by the United States Supreme Court. In Russia, however, the federal courts have yet to push back against the legislature’s infringement on the rights of Russian sexual minorities. Further compounding the problem for the LGBTQ community in Russia and its like-minded cultural satellites is a serious decline in national birthrates.
The stark difference between regional attitudes played out over the course of the televised 2014 Eurovision contest, as Russian social media aggressively targeted Wurst and her sexuality. In retaliation, the Russian performers were actively booed during their live performances.
At any rate, by adapting the privately-manufactured poster to a publicly-made piece of national art amplifies the Life Ball’s message–but it also speaks to Austria’s willingness to defend and project western liberal values.
The Austrian Mint calls Wurst “an icon of tolerance and open mindedness”. By producing the medal, it is, in essence, aligning the state’s views of the rights of sexual minorities with that of the event organizers.
They go on to call the medal “something really special” and “spectacular”.
Students of the numismatic sciences should take note of this medal. It illustrates the medium’s ability to not only stoke controversy, but to spark a conversation; to impart upon the culture social and political messages, and to celebrate certain values over others.
The Medal’s Details
The medal, produced by the Austrian Mint, features Conchita Wurst in the role of Gustav Klimt’s “Golden Adele” from his 1907 painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. It is the unofficial sixth issue in the Klimt series; the other five releases are 10-gram (0.35 ounce) 50-euro gold coins.
For the design of the medal, Austrian Mint engraver Helmut Andexlinger adapted a photograph staged by German-born fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth. The photograph featured prominently in this year’s Life Ball event.
The Medal’s reverse features a Klimt’s stylized tree, created for the Secession Building, which served as the epicenter for the Vienna Secession art and architectural movement movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Beneath the branches of the tree is the logo of the Life Ball, along with the inscription: “FIGHTING AIDS AND CELEBRATING LIFE”. The medal measures 44mm, weighs 20 grams, and is struck on gold-plated .999 silver (although the medal is marked “AG 925”).
If you’d like to order the Conchita Wurst – Klimt’s New Woman Life Ball Medal 2015, you can do so by placing your order directly with the Austrian Mint’s website. The cost is €88.00 plus a delivery charge of €15.00 for U.S. customers. 50% of the proceeds from the sale of the medal will go to the charity, AIDS LIFE.
UPDATE, 5-6-15: An earlier version of the article stated that Conchita Wurst was transgender. She does not self-identify as such.