Roddy Doyle thinks James Joyce is overrated. Terry Teachout thinks the same of Virginia Woolf. Doyle's comments can be taken as the know-nothing envy of a mediocre writer in the shadows of another writer of infinitely greater accomplishment. Teachout, however, joins the ranks of other conservative authors and commentators who have recently been expressing their disdain for "modern" art and literature--going back several years to Jacques Barzun and including in the last year or so Paul Johnson and Charles Murray.
I have always considered this conservative scorn for modern art rather peculiar. (I should make it clear that I am myself not a political conservative. Most conservatives would no doubt find many of my political, as opposed to aesthetic, views considerably to the left.) To take literature specifically, a number of great modern writers--Yeats, Eliot, Wyndam Lewis--have themselves been conservatives (certainly not left-wing radicals, although one such radical, John Dos Possos, later became a political conservative in a very prominent way), while others--Joyce, Faulkner, Proust--were at worst apolitical. Indeed, the literary darling of the modern right, Evelyn Waugh, wrote novels that were in no way aesthetically conservative. Moreover, it is precisely the traditional and the representational forms of art (the sort of art these conservatives would prefer, one has to assume) that have most been exploited for left-wing political purposes over the course of the twentieth century--the "proletarian" writers of the thirties, "socialist realism," etc.
To take this point even further, the disdain Dale Peck has now famously declared for writers like Joyce and Faulkner stems from the fact that these writers are not political, not "engaged" sufficiently, but instead players of literary games. One would think that conservatives would value an approach to literature that keeps the emphasis on its literary qualities, on its capacity to reinvigorate the aesthetic impulse, to exemplify imaginative "human accomplishment," to use Murray's phrase. In my mind a truly conservative approach to art would seek to preserve the Western tradition of artistic skill and innovation to which writers like Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf decidedly belong.
Perhaps conservative critics are still reacting to the attempt made in the 1950s and the 1960s to unite radical politics and modernism. This attempt failed, however, if the contempt for high art to be found among left wing academic critics is any measure. These conservatives excoriate such left-wing academic literary critics for their excesses--their politicization of literature that drains it of its aesthetic value. If we take Teachout, Murray, and Johnson as representative of "conservative" criticism of the arts, however, one suspects their real complaint about left-wing political dominance in the academy is that it's not a right-wing dominance. Their views are equally blinkered by politics.