A Treatise on Dental Aesthetics
In addition to an art museum and a center for the arts, Princeton, New Jersey has a “Center for Dental Aesthetics.” These institutions are more common than one might think, and I’d like to ask what they say about art and dentistry.
Dental Aesthetics, of course, is just a name for what some still call dentistry. But it is not the only name for it. Philadelphians who prefer the austere mid-century classicism of Mies van der Rohe can take their teeth to Modern Dental Concepts, while those who prefer a more current avant-garde aesthetic presumably go to Advanced Dental Concepts. Residents of New York face a no less dizzying array of choices. Tribeca Dental Design and Tribeca Dental Studio share a neighborhood, but presumably embody two wholly different schools of the dental art. It’s not the humble work of filling cavities that one pays for, it’s the concept, the aesthetic, the design that is valued.
Dentists seem willing to claim any competence other than that of simple dentistry. In New York, there is also the Dental Phobia Treatment Center, which bills itself as a psychiatric practice as much as a dental one. There is an office that offers a bed to nap in before or after, this almost makes them a hotel on paper. There is also the Manhattan Dental Spa and various practitioners of holistic and alternative dentistry. The insecurity runs so deep that many claim to be practitioners of dental “cosmetics,” a name that evokes the career path of night-school alumnae. But few beauticians seem so embarrassed of their own profession.
Dentistry is an interesting middle case in the prestige spectrum of American careers. To become one, one needs professional training in some ways comparable to that of a doctor or lawyer. But one is trained to do little more than pull, shift, and whiten teeth. One is not a priest of the metaphysical “law.” Unlike a doctor, one holds no power over life.
There may be something particularly comical about the rise of dental Concepts and Aesthetics, but the reluctance of dentists to think of themselves as workers in a humble and dignified craft only reflects the latest advance of a longstanding trend. Once the humble workman could serve as a model for even the most exalted artist or skilled technician. Now advanced technical competence, or even the romantic vision of the artist, must be the model for the most ordinary gentleman.