In this same chapter Kemp leaps to the 20th century and Richard Dawkins's "selfish genes" and James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and wonders about a self-regulating biosphere. Kemp likes to move back and forth across the centuries, explaining how scientific ideas morph and mutate in different historical eras--a sort of dialogue across time that he relishes. In "Growth and Form," he pays homage to D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's classic 1917 book On Growth and Form, explaining Thompson's references to Albrecht Durer's method of proportional transformation and connecting this approach to form to the visual mathematics of fractals, chaos theory and machine-made images.
Sometime in the 19th century, according to Kemp, the invention of the camera and its offspring technologies, cinema and radiography, liberated artists from having to reproduce nature with conventional perspective, freeing them to move in different directions. Scientists, in contrast, embraced photography and happily wed cameras to their microscopes and telescopes.
Kemp is still in the process of exploring the explosion of visual culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We humans are, as he illustrates in various ways throughout this rich discussion, visual creatures. We need to see in order to understand. Biologists, he reminds us, needed an electron microscope to see DNA and, from that glimpse, to construct a model. He lauds the contribution of physicist Richard Feynman, who devised the "Feynman diagrams" (which are not included in the text), because he thought, and taught, with images. Kemp applauds the visual reconstructions of contemporary planetary scientists who capture images of planets, such as Venus, while taking the liberty of coloring them with familiar, Earth-like tones. Why, he asks, bother to map Venus, where we will never go? Because, he replies, we are explorers, and explorers want to map their discoveries.
Kemp acknowledges that his reconsideration of scientists and artists across the centuries is sometimes difficult, and he asks his readers to bear with him. Some may be left sensing that this is not his final effort to explain visual culture, which is not the study of art or of science but an inquiry into human creativity that can be seen. In his own ongoing inquiry, Kemp is ambitious and enlightening but occasionally difficult to follow. He questions the validity, interpretation and ultimately the use of computerized, machine-made images extracted, for example, from PET and fMRI brain scans. Suddenly he fears the technology he has been describing. "The more technological the image looks, the more it exudes ... authority," he writes, but a computer is, nonetheless, a man-made tool that "seems to promise a non-human precision." And it would be a mistake to put the tool makers in the privileged position of deciding how their tools should be used.
Kemp's thoughts on art are self-consciously different in kind from other recent efforts to link art and science that either concentrate on individual artists and scientists or focus on a particular scientific breakthrough. None approaches the world as Kemp does. Seen/Unseen is a glimpse into his own thought process the way his Leonardo is a glimpse into the mind of an almost mythical genius. Kemp offers us a way of considering how artists and scientists have intuited visual truths in the past, reminds us that the past and the present are connected, and warns us against the potential tyranny of the newest digitized images that, though often beautiful and beguiling, are still man-made and not infallible.
This article was originally published with the title The Interplay of Art and Science.