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I think this depends on the artist and the "audience" for the art. Historically,some of the world's greatest artists had social or political content in their work. Picasso is one example, and there are many others.
But some artists had patrons who had to be satisfied or even flattered when they commissioned the work of artists, thus controlling the artist's ability to make social or political comments. If Robert Maplethorpe had worked this way, he certainly would not have been able to create many of the works he created. Patrons satisfied the artist's need for income, a need artists today have, too. Work with political and social content might not sell, and this is a factor that artists still have to take into account.
If an artist is true to him or herself, and the artist's agenda is to make political and social commentary, then that artist must decide how to create art and still keep bread on the table. Sometimes, though, an artist's agenda is to simply create a work of great beauty, and that does not make the work created any less valuable than art with a "message." We have had many great artists who have done this.
Certainly, no work of art exists in a vacuum, and whether or not the artist intended, often political or social messages are read into a work of art, much as they might be read into a novel.
How important is it to whom? To you? To the art world? Importance is up to you. If you care what others think, then the answer is, it depends. It depends upon what audience to which you are aiming. We are in the post-post modern world where there really are no rules anymore. Be a post-modernist if you want. Do social and political commentary if you want. Do anything you want. The art world is, unfortunately, still deeply infatuated with controversy and shock and the "new". Don't go there. It's pointless as an artist. Please yourself, and if that means social commentary, do it. However, if it is insincere, if it is not deeply felt on your part that will show in your work. So do it if it means a lot to you. Stay away if you don't care about it and just want to make beautiful art. It really is the age of the individual. No rules.
That's the new rule for 21st century art.
Political and social content are not garnishes to be added to a creative recipe; the content exists within the culture in which it is created. Every work of creation embodies its culture. Dickens wrote about industrializing England in the early part of the 1800's, and his work has been adapted again and again for its commentary on the culture of the day into present time. The better a work of art emits its cultural source, the greater work of art it becomes. Most artists will struggle to put bread on the table, regardless of the content of their work, since most artists' work isn't in demand while they are creating -- it's almost as if there must be some time that passes before one's work can be properly and critically examined and valued. Dickens was read in his day because people were interested in his descriptions of the difficulties of industrialization, while today he is read or produced because people are interested in an "old-fashioned" Victorian Christmas. Cultural perspectives regarding a work of art may change over time; the artwork and the culture in which it was produced does not. One expresses the other.
It is not at all necessary for a work of fine art to have political, social, or any other specific type of content. Usually a good work of arts reflect or is born out of feelings and thoughts of the artist. If the artist has any political or social leanings, these may be reflected in his or her art. But even this may not always be so, especially if the work is commissioned by someone with specific subject in mind.
I think that while one has the conscious choice to choose if social/ political content is present in one's art/ work, the reality is that it is very difficult to escape from the web of context within which we find ourselves. Sometimes, without our deliberate understanding, some aspect of culture/ social order permeates the work and our ideas. We can try to escape it, but it might be akin to trying to escape one's own skin: It is a part of us. If reflected on, even trying to escape it indicates some aspect of cultural/ social bias or remnant is present. The best we can do is to understand its presence, its role, and what we take from it. It is ingrained so deeply in us that little else can be done to eradicate it completely.
Follow an “inner compass”. Use it to navigate our world (especially the art world). Your compass may be your intellect. It may be your intuition, your heart, whatever you wish. That is up to you. It should be something you trust completely. Hopefully, you realize is still not perfected. If your process and work are threaded through relevant time and space for yourself and your larger "self" (aka the audience) your work may have social and political content already. The only issue is your audience may not be born yet or is removed in some way. After you know what is important through reflection. Try comprehending your programming and adapted it to your life work. Do you know what is crucial to your own creative expression? If so, set a course with compass, body, sails and sea. How you define abundance is directly going to tell you how you relate any system. How are you attached or threaded from your past, your process, your work and your audience? What world do you wish to occupy? Be honest and you will get your truth.
I agree with all my fellow editors. If you choose to make a statement with your art, it's your perfect right to do so. And plenty do. If you want to create out of sheer joy an appreciation of beauty, you may certainly do that. Plenty do that, as well. If your portrayal of beauty (or ugliness, for that matter) is a reminder of environmental or social issues, that's fine, too. There is no obligation to make more out of art than art.
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