I have a big problem and her name is Elise.

You may ask me who Elise is, but I cannot tell you the answer. She may be Therese Malfatti or perhaps Elise Barensfeld, but in all possible cases, I am a victim of her gross iniquities. To clarify, Elise may be a fictive construct but hers is the name given to Beethoven’s muse, or at least the woman he wrote “Für Elise” for.

Now, Elise and I have a sordid past. Her bagatelle haunts me everywhere I go: in unoriginal elevators, children’s piano recitals, movie theaters, even shopping malls. And each time I hear the first note, I am filled with the unspeakable dread that hypochondriacs have only described as angor animi. Perhaps Beethoven was lucky to go deaf when he did.

Polemics aside, I bitterly regret how much I hate “Für Elise.” I am not one to hate classical pieces simply because they are overplayed — I will never stop being mesmerized by “The Blue Danube,” even though I might mix it up with a Chopin Ballade for good measure. However, there is something about Fur Elise’s abject banality, its facetiousness, that makes me want to eviscerate myself and then raze the institutions that promulgate it to the ground. 

Even so, I have rarely been more affronted by the song’s mere existence than I was when this harrowing video made it onto my Snapchat discover page. To save everyone from the hardest cringe of their life, I will summarize. A man who masqueraded as a classical musician walked on to America’s Got Talent, started playing the first four bars of Für Elise and then suddenly began to break-dance, while some electronic version of the bagatelle played in the background.

Admittedly, I know next-to-nothing about dance — I have neither the expertise nor the desire to comment on his bodily motions — but what I can comment on is his decision to start his performance with a classical piano piece that was entirely unrelated to his dance style. It was shocking, yes, but it sorely lacked intentionality. In fact, the sole reason he chose Für Elise seemed to be that it was both familiar and famously boring, allowing him to subvert our expectations and then kick a piano stool like an overzealous British spy. I could not help but see this as another piece of that modern tendency, of self-indulgently provocative art.

Let me be clear — I think art should provoke. In fact, art is at its pinnacle when it catalyzes political change through its radicalism. Whether it is a play about the life of Rodney King that forces America to reconsider a history of police violence, whether it is Russia’s first drag queen — Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe, who dismantled the Soviet gentocracy’s archaic views on gender — or protest art about India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, most of the art that has inspired me, that has shaped my convictions, has been provocative.

By no means am I Edith Wharton, and by no means is this an age of innocence in which etiquette is my desideratum. But I can’t help but compare the radical art of French artists under Vichy occupation, of Bulgakov evading Soviet censorship, of the protestors and artists who shape the moral fiber of our society and then these artists who provoke not for politics, but for ratings. Artists whose provocation is self-serving, whose radicalism is self-indulgent, are simply trying to distract viewers from empty form, from mundane content. 

I grappled with the same question last month at an exhibition by the Pera museum on ambassadors and painters from European states to Istanbul. The exhibition — a collection of imperial portraits and artistic experiments with royalty — finished with Alejandra Almanza Pereda’s work “Horror Vacui”: a romantic landscape painting which was smashed by a large slab of concrete, now covered in streaks of white paint. 

As much as I respect Pereda’s oeuvre, I cannot help but see his violence as gratuitous. Sure, he was dissatisfied by the petite bourgeois forms of oil painting. So were the constructivists. They channeled this dissatisfaction to expand art into sculpture, not to destroy works that might have taken months to create. Destruction is a powerful tool, especially in protest art, but only when artists have something to protest. Our America’s Got Talent performer’s destruction of the banal simplicity of a piece like “Für Elise,” and his kicking of the piano stool, fall into the latter category. 

You may disagree with me; you may say he was pressured by the commercial incentives of television, or that shock is the best way to capture an audience’s attention. You might be fans of radicalism. You may even claim that my writing is provocation for provocation’s sake (which is true). I have no right to argue; I am no great arbiter of taste, just an amateur writer. I only hope that the self-indulgent radicalism of so many artists today does not constitute a great disservice to the truly provocative artists who came before — whose innovation and courage shaped the moral reckoning that led us where we are.

Pradz Sapre is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin college. His column, titled ‘Growing pains’, runs every other Monday. Contact him at pradz.sapre@yale.edu.

PRADZ SAPRE
Pradyumna Sapre is a junior in Benjamin Franklin college. His column, titled ‘Growing pains’, runs every other Monday.