Random Acts of Culture: Reclaiming Art and Community in the 21st Century is an unsentimental, optimistic book about the art of living in apocalyptic times. Clarke Mackey argues that art and culture in Western society — both the mass culture of the people and the high culture of elites — has become stultified, that it is experienced in artificial conditions and is increasingly irrelevant to modern life, however much fleeting pleasure it might provide. In contrast he examines the very different role that the arts played in the past and still play in Eastern, African and other less industrialized countries, where whole communities participate directly in performances and where cultural activity is not an artificial ritualized oasis outside normal life, but an essential part of everyday experience.
Making a radical analysis of cultural life from pre-history to the present, the book draws new conclusions, showing how the present nature of cultural activities is determined by historically recent economic patterns that undermine the social and democratic nature of the arts. It examines how literacy, imperialism, industrialization, and electronic technologies have coalesced to produce a new category of participant in cultural affairs: the spectator. The book suggests that the rise of the spectator in modern culture precipitates the sense of powerlessness and apathy felt by more and more people caught up in the sweeping changes brought about by globalization.
In response, Mackey proposes restoring and celebrating a third category of cultural activity that is as old as human society itself, but is seldom discussed: vernacular culture. This includes all those creative, non-instrumental activities people engage in daily to provide meaning to their lives: conversation between friends, social gatherings and rituals, play and participatory sports, informal storytelling, musical jam sessions, cooking and gardening, homemade architecture, and street festivals. The book proposes that a simple, conscious emphasis on practicing and celebrating such activities at the expense of passive, consumer culture would have far-reaching beneficial effects on all aspects of human life in the new millennium.
Random Acts of Culture provides a considered, timely, and provocative response to the popularity of amateur, participatory, and DIY culture on the World Wide Web and elsewhere. Yet, the unconventional conclusions it makes will please neither those who fear a future of more and more cultural degradation nor those who anticipate a techno-utopia.