The curators who organized “Infinite Jest,” the survey of caricature and satire from Leonardo da Vinci to David Levine currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had a nifty idea. At a moment when everybody is lamenting the sorry state of political life, they have gathered together several centuries worth of prints and drawings by artists lamenting the sorry state not only of political life but of social and cultural life as well. In its own terms the show, organized by Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein, is a rousing success, finely wrought and full of delicious stuff. There are brilliant forays into the follies of fashion, the mendacities of politics, and the monstrous egos of artists. Looking at one of Daumier’s send-ups of the artistic personality, all you can think is that it takes one to know one. And “Infinite Jest” is certainly a terrific introduction to the high points of nineteenth-century caricature, with choice work by Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank, and countless others.

“Infinite Jest” presents the passing parade as a glittering freak show, and is thus entirely appropriate to our appallingly undignified times. But for the artist the impulse to exaggerate can also be an exalted impulse, even an idealistic impulse. This is a side of the story that “Infinite Jest” does not fully embrace. Which is probably not a surprise. In our pessimistic period artistic exuberance is suspect, if not entirely unbelievable. We are in danger of forgetting that the caricatural line—as it evolves in this show from a sketch of a dwarf by Bernini, the greatest of seventeenth-century sculptors, through the dazzling arabesques in Hogarth’s eighteenth-century prints—is not so much descriptive as it is expressive, not so much a comment on the limits of human physiognomy as a celebration of the limitlessness of the artistic imagination. Although the curators have made their selection exclusively from the Metropolitan’s own collection, I know those collections are expansive enough to tell a somewhat different story. The art historians E. H. Gombrich and Ernst Kris, in their little 1940 book Caricature, located caricature in “the sphere of artistic freedom,” where “we are allowed to indulge our impulses free from fear.” The fear of which they spoke, or so I believe, is not just the satirist’s fear of the censor’s heavy hand. What you feel in the caricatural lines of Leonardo, Bernini, Tiepolo, and Hogarth are the beginnings of the free hand of the modern artist—of the exaggerated physiognomies of Picasso’s human comedy, of Brancusi’s crazily stylized stone and metal heads, of Klee’s phantasmagorical psychological portraiture, and of Matisse’s wittily faux-naif impressions of his own bespectacled face.

Bernini’s Caricature of a Man Pointing—a tiny, spectacular recent addition to the Metropolitan’s collection—is said in the catalogue of the exhibition to “differ markedly from the work that won [him] fame.” And, of course, I understand that a world separates this satirical sketch from the luxuriant erotic bravado of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne or the cascading religious epiphany of his St. Teresa. Then again, the exploratory liveliness of Bernini’s line in this minute study is not entirely divorced from the liquid profiles he created as he cut into cool, white stone. At the core of the caricatural impulse is a desire to free line from constraint—to let the hand that guides the pen or pencil go wild. For Leonardo, caricature was about the extremes of emotion and experience, an infinity of strangeness and disquietude to contrast with the infinity of human loveliness that obsessed him. At “Infinite Jest,” the possibilities of caricature become all too thoroughly enmeshed with the imperatives of journalism. That is a big part of the story, but it is not the whole story. An exhibition that embraces Leonardo, Bernini, Goya, Hogarth, and Daumier, could as easily have concluded with Van Gogh, Picasso, Brancusi, Klee, Calder, Bonnard, Matisse, and Giacometti. True enough, to exaggerate is to poke fun. But to exaggerate is also to feel free and to find the imagination going where it has not gone before. In Matisse’s strange, funny, late self-portraits, caricature is the search for truth and the satirical line is the purest line of all.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.