“I don’t know anything about art,” boasts Marty Edelston, a cheery, toothy, 65-year-old New York businessman who recently donated his collection of 143 photographs to the Art Institute. “I just bought them for the messages.”

Every photo he’s ever bought has sent a message to Edelston, who christened his bequest “Lessons in Life.” At last Thursday’s opening for the Art Institute exhibit, Edelston–who says he works 18 hours a day seven days a week, hasn’t taken a vacation in ten years, earned his black belt in karate at age 57, and makes more money than he knows what to do with–spelled out his perspective picture by picture.

He pointed to Hindenburg With Pipe Clamps, a photo-sculpture creation by Mike and Doug Starn that reproduces a famous news shot of the dirigible disaster on wobbly sheets of transparent plastic. An assortment of plumbing hardware grips a metal rig that serves as a frame. There’s a wrecked, ad hoc look to it. “Little mistakes have gigantic consequences,” concluded Edelston.

He bought his first piece of photographic art in 1987 from the Starn twins, brothers in Boston who push the boundaries of their medium. “I was not a collector back then,” explained Edelston. “I was a seeker of the truth.” He found a metaphor. But a bargain? “Five hundred dollars for a piece of [photographic] paper that’s all wrinkled with the words ‘order’ and ‘confusion’ on it. It’s just skyrocketed. It’s now worth five or ten thousand, I don’t know.”

Hanging near the Hindenburg thing was a lenticular photograph by Barbara Kruger that reads, alternately, “Our prices are insane!” and “I’m just looking” as the viewer shifts angles. Of Robert Heinecken’s Untitled News Women: Diane Sawyer–a blurry, pointillist rendition taken off the television screen–Edelston says, “Beware of the media. Television is a killer of communication.”

Edelston entered the media business himself 20 years ago when he founded Boardroom, Inc., now a hundred-million-dollar company with 77 employees and a current-offerings list that includes five special reports, eight newsletters, and nine books, all brimming with advice for businesspeople. Book titles include How to Do Everything Right. He sends out T-shirts bearing the platitude Happiness Is Positive Cash Flow.

Boardroom’s encyclopedic The Book of Inside Information handles a gamut of home and office quandaries: “When the Tag Says ‘Do Not Remove,'” “At What Age Should a Child Leave Home?” “Choosing the Right Puppy for Your Family,” “Dealing With an Angry Dog,” “Instant Revenge Against Obscene Phone Caller,” “How to Get Doctors to Talk to You on the Phone,” “Handling an Unsolicited Call From a Headhunter,” “Smart Number Picks in a State Lottery,” “Numbers Not to Use for a Combination Lock,” “Good and Bad Ways to Remedy a Zinc Deficiency,” and “How to Pick an Investment Newsletter.” An entry on “How to Stay Well Informed” advises reading the editorials in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal but warns, “Television reporting is terrifically overheated and so warps the perspective on news.” Edelston urges his clients to filter information, just as he does: “Everyone needs, and should work to develop, a point of view with which to interpret the world. Without a perspective, the news of the world becomes incomprehensible.”

Despite his know-nothing pose on art, Edelston is perfectly willing to diagnose what ails America. “Nobody thinks!” he blurts. “We haven’t had to think for 50 years– since World War II.” (He offers a remedy: a $25 how-to book titled Thinking.) “I can’t go to dinner parties anymore,” he happily fumes; it seems he employs the term “stupid” rather too liberally for the comfort of other guests. “Everything we’ve been doing in this country is stupid.” His latest acquisition–not part of the Art Institute bequest–is a sculpture by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer that bears the inscription: “The Future Is Stupid.” Edelston optimistically amends her message: “Unless you do something about it.”

At the height of America’s panic attack about Japan taking over our economy, Edelston picked up Joel Sternfeld’s chromogenic color photo Summer Interns, Wall Street, New York City, August, 1987, which depicts a pair of young men wearing suspenders–one is white, the other Japanese–on an outdoor lunch break. To Edelston the lesson was obvious: “The American has no cares. The Japanese guy is ready to devour him. Conceptually he has already eaten half of the American. See? He’s eaten half of his hot dog.”

Edelston also owns Barefoot Attorney, Chicago, July, 1989, another Sternfeld, which portrays a man standing in a corner office– perhaps at Lake and LaSalle, from the looks of his view. There’s a globe beside him. He has no shoes or socks on. “His company was just taken over by the Japanese,” mused Edelston.

Edelston’s search for bottom-line significance in his photos parallels the tactic adopted by many of the so-called conceptual artists in his collection: appropriation. “Notice,” writes Colin Westerbeck in the show’s catalog, “how many pieces in the exhibition are pictures of other pictures.”

There’s Andy Warhol’s photo of photos advertising Winston cigarettes. And there’s a shot by Richard Misrach of a page from Playboy magazine that somebody used for target practice. The ad on that page features Andy Warhol holding a bottle of Vidal Sassoon for Men Natural Control Hair Spray. One of his eyes is shot out. Like Edelston, these artists “take” photographs by other photographers for their own uses.

The irony is heavy-handed in Margaret Bourke-White’s 1937 photograph of glum blacks standing in a relief line beside a National Association of Manufacturers billboard that shows a smiling white family in a car. The billboard proclaims: “World’s Highest Standard of Living” and “There’s No Way Like the American Way.” Edelston bought this picture but prefers the subtler message in Julie O’Connor’s Mercer Street, Soho, a 1985 shot of a gathering of able-bodied African American men on a city sidewalk. “There’s five people with all this power they could do so much with, though they’re not doing anything. It’s like all this art on my wall-doing nothing.”

Edelston was thrilled when the Art Institute asked him for the collection, especially since a few New York museums he’d contacted with the idea had been reluctant to embrace his “Lessons in Life” angle. At first Westerbeck, an associate curator in the department of photography, had simply wanted to acquire some duplicate Sternfeld prints. But one thing led to another.

“I had never given my art away,” says Edelston. “Then I had a revelation. Why not give up the whole collection? I had this great apartment and kept the shades down all day so the sun wouldn’t ruin the art. My walls were filled with the stuff. I couldn’t add another picture unless I took one down and found another one the same size. And that’s no way to pick photographs.”

David Travis, head of the Art Institute’s photography department, applauds the idiosyncratic agenda of Edelston’s superb, albeit scattershot, collection. “It’s really unusual for a collector to have a point of view that’s so uh, uh, civic. His collecting meshes entirely with his thinking. That’s what is so wonderfully refreshing, almost perverse.”

The Art Institute left Edelston’s “Lessons” rubric intact. Not offending the tastes of visitors seems a higher priority than defending the turf of curators; museum officials installed signs at the entrance warning: “This exhibition contains images that may be offensive to some viewers.” In a back gallery, where photos of hermaphroditic nudes and a blood-soaked sanitary napkin hang, another sign warns: “Beyond this point there are images that could be troubling, especially to younger visitors.”

To date Edelston has taken out full-page ads in the Tribune that offered free admission coupons to “Lessons in Life” for college students. A couple of photographs from the exhibit are reproduced with captions that challenge: “What lessons can you learn from this photograph?” Inside the exhibit, Edelston’s pedagogical impulse takes the form of free brochures that reprint nine photos from his collection. Each image comes with aphorisms and admonitions highlighting their respective messages, as gleaned by Edelston.

Edelston’s collecting stopped rather abruptly in 1992. In his book I-Power: The Secrets of Great Business in Bad Times, Edelston mentioned his “inspirational art collection” at the end of a chapter on fair compensation of employees. “As the collection grew…I found myself increasingly pained instead of proud. I concluded that there were far more important things for me to do in life than collect art. High in priority among those things I could do was to help my people live decently.”

At the “Lessons in Life” opening Edelston explained, “The more art I bought, the guiltier I felt.” A few years ago he handed out profit-sharing checks for the first time. “Some of my employees broke down and cried. It was the first time in their lives they were out of debt.” He realized he’d been a bit out of touch with economic reality.

Now the only photos Edelston buys come from newspapers. If he detects a lesson, he orders a reprint, usually paying between $25 and $100. He has his art department make blowups, frames them, and hangs them in his office hallways. He said one shot, showing a man pushing a big load of bread, “helped us make a big decision.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.