A Nude Woman Statue Is at the Center of National Mall Controversy

Activists wanted to install this sculpture on the National Mall for the weekend event Catharsis on the Mall. Courtesy Catharsis on the Mall

The federal government showed complete "disregard" for artists' free-speech rights when it blocked their plan to display a 47-foot statue of a naked woman in the Capital, according to organizers of an annual women's rally on the National Mall.

The National Park Service said it blocked the permit for the statue R-Evolution, by artist Marco Cochrane, because it was too tall, not because it featured a naked female form.

The sculpture was supposed to appear on the National Mall as part of the third annual Catharsis on the Mall, a weekend of lectures, workshops and community art meant to provide "healing for wounds in ourselves, each other and in our society," according to the event's website. The group had applied two months ago for a permit from the Park Service to make the statue the centerpiece of the event.

Initially the permit went through without a hitch: The Park Service gave organizers permission to install the statue directly across from the Washington Monument for the duration of the festival and for up to four months afterward. The Park Service also granted the group a height variance, stating it was acceptable that the statue exceeded the Mall's 45-foot height limit.

But on Wednesday, just days before a crew was set to load the provocative nude statue on a truck to Washington, D.C., a Park Service spokesperson told organizers that permission had been withdrawn because it had been issued "in error."

"The proposed nearly 48-foot height of the statue introduces a visual element that would diminish the property's significant historic features by altering the setting and historic character of the National Mall landscape," Mark Litterst wrote in an email.

Catharsis on the Mall organizers, and Cochrane's staff, think that size doesn't matter, but nudity does.

"It's hard not to feel like they're making a value judgment," Julia Whitelaw, Cochrane's creative partner, told Newsweek. "They were worried about it obstructing views of the Washington Monument? We offered to move it. They were worried about the statue wrecking the grass? We would have paid to have it replaced. But they just flat-out said it's not in keeping with the character of the Mall anywhere. It's pretty blanket."

National Park Service denies request to place 48-ft. statue of naked woman on the National Mall for 91 days. https://t.co/OIy8KMGGzW pic.twitter.com/5GKnR1KynY

— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) October 26, 2017

Whitelaw, along with Cochrane and the event's organizers, believe the Park Service is infringing on their First Amendment rights by denying them the permit. Whitelaw said Catharsis on the Mall organizers are in talks with lawyers about legal options, while she and Cochrane are looking for an attorney to represent them pro-bono in a potential First Amendment lawsuit.

"Using this abysmal excuse to trump our action bringing attention to violence against women shows an unbelievable disregard for the people involved and the First Amendment," Catharsis on the Mall organizers told The Washington Post Thursday.

The fact that Cochrane intended the statue to be a symbol of women's fight for equality only adds insult to injury, given the current national conversation about sexual harassment in the month since dozens of women have claimed harassment by Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and director James Toback, Whitelaw added.

"No one at the Park Service ever said it's because the statue is nude, but their response is interesting in light of the 'Me Too' campaign," she said.

There's another irony to the story: Park Service officials worried that the statue of the nude woman would obstruct views of the Washington Monument, arguably the country's biggest phallic symbol.