The Art of Ben Wilson and the Tradition of Outsider Art

One of my favorite courses to teach is a course on Outsider Art. This tradition lumps together several categories – contemporary folk art, art of the insane (we could start calling this art of  the cognitively divergent, one would suppose), the European Art Brut, and sometimes even graffiti and street paste-up art, but it can sometimes be tricky to determine what is “insider” and what is “outsider.”

In France, during the waning years of the Academy, a tradition where young painters learned from “master” artists, and where royalty still held sway over what was considered art, modernism began to flourish as an outsider position.
My Interpretation of San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk (Monet) Claude Monet and other impressionists, inspired by the rebellious art of Edouard Manet a generation prior, who had worked in the Academy, but who created paintings that were shocking in their handling of subject matter and technique, rejected the Academy all together, preferring to explore art on their own terms. By the end of Monet’s life, modernism and the individual expression; individual struggle, exploration and discovery were the new rule. Monet and his colleagues, including cognitively divergent artist Vincent Van Gogh, were at the heart of a new, middle class (or possibly better described as industrialist class), cannon of modern art.

I discuss this conundrum with students: what is an insider versus an outsider when the radical and new can be so easily adopted within a cannon that redefines itself as it separates the wheat from the chaff, as it were? We are left with a series of categories: an artist could be an insider-insider, someone that studied in and completely adopts the standards and rules of the gallery and museum system; and insider-outsider, someone trained in the tradition of art, but who rejects it to explore financially insecure “outsider” means of expression; an outsider-insider, someone who started creating individualist art either through cognitive drives different than the norm or through self-taught means, or counter cultural ideas, who was then adopted and welcomed into the gallery and museum system; and an outsider-outsider, an artist who started and remained in an outsider position throughout their art making life.

Such an approach can be helpful when we start looking at the art like that of one of the early artists heralded as “Art Brut” or “Raw Art,” Adolf Wölfli who experienced extreme childhood trauma before living in an asylum and creating volumes of artwork based on his internal world.

Adolf Wölfli General view of the island Neveranger, 1911.jpg
General view of the island Neveranger By Adolf Wölfli – Originally uploaded by Wiccan Quagga to en.wikipedia; description page is/was here., Public Domain,

This quarter a student decided to study the art of Ben Wilson, a British outsider artist who began working in wood, but who has gone on to paint gum splotches on bridges and sidewalks across London. Growing up in a supportive, artistic environment, and beginning to study art in college, Wilson is a bit of an insider-outsider. He grew up in the world of art, and rejected it to continue his own exploration.

Ben Wilson wood

Sculpture 2 by Ben Wilson, 1994

His most recent work has been painting on chewing gum.


Ben Wilson photographed by The Guardian.

My independent study student who took the course with me in the Spring quarter did a great job of finding sources to explore Wilson’s work, citing Lucy Lippard on “conceptual” art, and Ian Wallace on the history of the found object as well as other sources on environmental art, graffiti, and contemporary art.

My goal in Outsider Art is to explore how we define art – who defines art? In the Academy, it was senior artists long appointed and patronized by royal families. Authority, aesthetics and artistry were inextricably linked. In modernism it was a more collective effort, driven by the new revenue and new ideas of industrialists who believed that drive, invention and forging ahead in a unique and individual ways defined a person more than their lineage. Money and status were still prime drivers.

In contrast, the concept of Outsider Art allows us to explore the margins of aesthetics, of invention in new ways, but not necessarily separate from the market. Outsider Artists often create their work regardless of monetary gain, but the culture of reception and collection of art pieces is certainly within the framework of modernism. It is rich territory for us to explore, and I look forward to next teaching the class.


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